This column, and our work at Israel’s Media Watch since 1995, concerns monitoring Israel’s local media. Our objectives are among other things to uncover and analyze bias and unethical journalistic practices. Our work aims to strengthen Israel’s democracy.
Media bias is not a red herring.
It is not a tool in the bag of rightwing tricks. News media bias is real.
It exists, Left, Right and Center.
Is that so bad? Well, yes. Bias in reporting directly impacts voting patterns, for example.
The great difficulty with bias is that it is not restricted to one issue or one reporter. Bias does not remain at the lower levels of media production such as on-air reporting and news.
Eventually it ascends the hierarchy to become part of the analysis and commentary, and then reaches the offices of the editors and directors.
L. Brent Bozell, a fierce critic of liberal bias, noting that it can be elusive, remarked that “just as there is no such thing as purely objective news, there is no purely objective way to measure news bias.” Nevertheless, measurements can expose its existence.
Tim Groseclose, political science professor at UCLA, is the author of the book, Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind. Three of his models of bias are quite applicable to the Israeli experience. They are: newsrooms filled overwhelmingly with liberals; the liberal press assuring its continued existence through self-selection; and editors who even if they do want to support pluralism have a hard time finding conservatives who want to be journalists.
This past month, the BBC was subjected to an investigation by Ofcom.
Ofcom is the communications regulator in the UK, charged with protecting the public from “sharp practices.”
It operates under a number of Acts of Parliament, in particular the Communications Act 2003 which decrees that Ofcom’s principal duty is to further the interests of citizens and of consumers.
The finding was that while 62 percent of the population who watched BBC News rated it highly for being “accurate and reliable,” while just under half (48%) rated the BBC highly for being “impartial and unbiased.” The gap between the two findings points to a problem of trustworthiness as well as a media consumer society that is either naïve or confused. That framework exists in Israel no less than in any other country.
What is different in our Israeli experience is that no government agency, or for that matter any of the state-sponsored broadcasting networks, has engaged in any similar studies of their own output. The government takes our money but does not provide us an opportunity to get our money’s worth of fair supervision. Worse, the ombudsmen whose job is to receive complaints and investigate them are often, as our many studies have illustrated, either unwilling to take a principled stance, fall in line with the network or run up against a system that ignores their judgments.
Of course, there are those who perceive a strong right-wing bias in the media. In his December 24 Haaretz column, left-wing extremist Gideon Levy wrote that “religious ultranationalism... has won, big time” and pointed to a supposed “takeover of the debate,” claiming that the “inroads into the media have already been made.” A few days earlier, in the midst of the brouhaha over Channel 20’s criticism of President Reuven Rivlin’s participation at Haaretz’s New York Conference earlier in December, Erel Segal responded.
On the station’s The Patriots program, he sarcastically said, “Extremists are only to be found on the Right. The Left is always sane. Crazies are only on the Right, while maybe only one can be found on the Left. Right is incitement; Left is freedom of expression. Left has satire, art and consideration while on the right they’ve been assassinating a prime minister for the past 20 years.”
Syracuse University assistant professor at the School of Information Studies Jeffery Hemsley, co-author of Going Viral, highlights the trend of people tending to pick their own news. This reinforces their beliefs rather than challenging them. That is reflected in the news rooms. It is called the “filter bubble effect” whereby those on the various sides of an issue choose to be exposed to media that doesn’t challenge their views. Clustering left-of-center viewpoints in newsrooms leads to a cloistering effect, and even the tone of coverage becomes a problem.
Hemsley adds that the effect makes it “increasingly difficult to dislodge misinformation.” Truth must be “sexier than the lie” if it is to confront bad information, he writes. If the challenging is oriented to one side of the public debate, both sides eventually lose out.
Alternatively, the media becomes the enemy.
How does all this play out in Israel? Consider for example this past Saturday night. Rina Matsliach of Channel 2 News interviewed Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.
The main topic was the Duma torching incident and the accusations against the Israeli security services regarding brutal interrogation methods. In addition, there were a few questions on the killing of convicted terrorist Samir Kuntar, NGO Breaking the Silence and coalition politics. Using a stopwatch, we determined that during a total interview time of 1,127 seconds (almost 19 minutes), Ya’alon was asked 31 questions. Matsliach spoke a total of 272 seconds (24%) and Ya’alon spoke 732 seconds (64%).
That may seem a fair distribution of airtime, but Matsliach interrupted Ya’alon 19 times and this led to numerous periods when both of them were talking together. For the viewer, this became a nigh unintelligible and annoying conversation.
This data is, though, generous to Matsliach. The sad truth is that if one removes the topics not related to the Duma killings from the interview, which accounted for a quarter of the interview, one finds that Matsliach’s interference in the remaining 859 seconds in which the Duma issue was “discussed” became dominant. Ya’alon couldn’t finish more than half his sentences.
Matsliach was quite “successful” in keeping Ya’alon off-balance and breaking his train of thought.
In Israel, even when a politician is afforded airtime, for him/her to get their version of the truth out becomes a difficult task.
We stress here that Ya’alon’s views are immaterial. It is the message emanating from Matsliach that is the issue. Her conduct was, in a word, unprofessional.
The media acts as an agent whose task is to cover the gap between what happens and the consumer who needs to know what happened, and why. It is a process of information transfer, or should be. The sad state of affairs in Israel, though, is that journalists of Matsliach’s ilk are considered “stars,” and receive commensurate salaries. News and commentary is presented in an imbalanced and unfair way, unethical practices are rampant. The system responsible for correction and prevention is weak. The inexorable conclusion is that our media, instead of uniting society, disorients it.
The authors are vice chairman and chairman respectively of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imediaw.org.il).