We in Israel, and in the Jewish world, are in the midst of that 10-day period known as the Days of Penitence that opened with Rosh Hashana (and was preceded by the recitation of the Selichot prayers) and will be sealed with the fast of Yom Kippur. There is no better time for all of us, including our media, to consider the past year and take upon ourselves to try and improve during the new one.
As Maimonides has taught us, the first phase of repentance is the realization that an error was made. Admitting error is acceptable in some media organs. Without any relation to Yom Kippur, in England this past week the BBC publicly reprimanded Adam Rutherford, the presenter of Radio 4’s Inside Science broadcast. He had used his Twitter account to call on his followers to write to their local MPs about the reappointment of Graham Stringer, a climate change skeptic, to a parliamentary committee.
The BBC’s editorial standards team stated that this “potentially compromised the BBC’s impartiality.”
Rutherford was informed that he was committed, as an employee, to certain responsibilities as to how to use social media. In his name, the corporation informed the public that Rutherford now regretted the tweets and “accepts that he needs to consider carefully how his other published views might impact on his BBC work, and if necessary take advice from his editor at the BBC.”
It is easy to go through our articles of the past year, which pointed out all too often media excesses, error or bias. But we are not naïve – in most issues our media will not really agree with or accept the accusations against it. So we will consider in this article some issues we believe all of us could agree on.
Consider something as simple as terminology.
Early on in his position as adviser to prime minister Menachem Begin, the late Shmuel Katz sent a request to the Israel Broadcasting Authority regarding terminology. He asked them to assure that their news reports, except when quoting external sources, referred to “Judea and Samaria” rather than the “territories” (shtachim) or “West Bank.”
Judea and Samaria are the heart of the historic Land of Israel mentioned in the Bible. They were referred to as such even in the description of the United Nations’ 1947 Partition Plan boundaries.
The term “Judea and Samaria” appears on medieval European maps. Calling them “territories” is equivalent to negating a person’s name and referring to her or him as “it.” It is like referring to the Temple Mount as “Haram al-Sharif” or replacing Jerusalem with “al-Quds.”
The sources of erroneous terminology are many. Some have to do with ignorance. Unfortunately, too many Israelis have not been exposed in schools to our heritage and the biblical history of this land. They simply do not know better.
After all, the whole world relates to Judea and Samaria as “territories” or “occupied territories.”
Why should our young up-and-coming Israeli journalists, well versed in Western ways, even realize the error? For others, terminology is but another way to express ideology. Some journalists will not use the words “Judea and Samaria,” as part of an attempt to alter history.
Shmuel Katz’s request was not honored. In this context it is a pleasure to note that The Jerusalem Post has lately officially changed its style and the names Judea and Samaria appear frequently.
We would respectfully suggest that our media remain true to history and refer to Judea and Samaria in their historical context.
Wrong or misleading terminology is not limited to designation of land. Another, related term is “mekomi’im,” or locals. Somehow, Jews living in these localities, many of them for decades, are never considered “locals.” The term is reserved solely for Arabs.
A foreigner coming to Israel will quickly understand that Israel’s people are strangely distributed.
There are simply no leftists here. “Peace activists” abound but extreme leftists do not exist. Extremists here come only from the Right.
As Wendy Lu suggested in the Columbia Journalism Review September 5 issue, media people should get “rid of words that assume a negative relationship. Use neutral language.” The Reuters journalism handbook also requires that “our language should be neutral.” In the spirit of Yom Kippur, we suggest that the media discontinue using the term “extremist,” period. Name-calling does not contribute to positive dialogue. Identify an individual’s ideological position, if relevant, but nothing additional. Extremity is in the eyes of the beholder, it is not objective. There are no well-established criteria for when one is or is not an “extremist.”
A central source of mutual disrespect in journalism nowadays is social media. Once upon a time, there were bars where journalists gathered and talked to each other. Discussions were probably often heated, but did not become part of the public discourse. Nowadays, discussions take place via Twitter. There, the language, nature and nonsensicality of the discourse of journalists among themselves is astounding. In the spirit of Yom Kippur, we will not name names, but suggest that journalists use a modicum of self-restraint before lashing out on social media.
In Canada, CBC News recently had occasion to deal with the issue of journalists lashing out on Twitter. In March this year, Jennifer McGuire, head of CBC News, said that defining “the line between analysis and opinion, and who gets to express those views” was – as she put it – a “challenge.”
Confronting demands for impartiality on the issues of the day, the CBC code denies its journalists the right to “express their own personal opinion because it affects the perception of impartiality and could affect an open and honest exploration of an issue.”
However, McGuire then wriggled right out of this constraint by viewing “an observation based on the facts of the issue... as analysis, [which] isn’t the same as a view that comes out of left field without supporting arguments, or in other words, opinion.”
In October 2014, then New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet observed that “[o]ne of the biggest criticisms aimed at my generation of editors is that we created a priesthood, that we decided who was a journalist and who was not....
As I observe the criticism nowadays, you will forgive me for noting that it sounds like a new priesthood is being created, with new rules for entry.”
In Israel, the “priesthood” is called “the branja,” the elitist guild. Too often in our history, especially during the Second Temple period, our priests took to infighting instead of positive causes. We call upon our modern-day “priests”: use your position responsibly. Use terminology carefully. Our sages admonished us: “silence is a signature of wise people.” Please use your social media sparingly and in good taste. Perhaps these little things will help all of us have more trust in the media.The authors are members of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imediaw.org.il).
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