Violating media norms has be come the new norm - opinion

When the media select topics to highlight or downplay, the media consumer is provided with inaccurate information. That is a threat to our democracy.

 THE MEDIA are present as MK Itamar Ben-Gvir addresses his Otzma Yehudit faction in the Knesset, last week.  (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
THE MEDIA are present as MK Itamar Ben-Gvir addresses his Otzma Yehudit faction in the Knesset, last week.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Just before being sworn in as a member of the Knesset on November 15, Amichai Chikli was asked by Yaara Shapira of Channel 11 about being the future chairman of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Security Committee. He responded “I am unaware of such an appointment. I have learned there are journalists who know more than I do.”

That less-than-subtle dig at the role the media has assumed, that is, less reporting of news and more managing the same, supplying the public with, at the best, presumed facts or wishful thinking affected views and, at the worse, story elements they know to be wrong or unconfirmed, indicated that the moment the media might finally become the central political story is nearing.

Whatever develops, I would hope that media accountability and media oversight need to play an increasingly important role in the future as media ethics is too crucial a matter to be left entirely to those in the media.

An article in the academic journal Journalism by Bartosz Wilczek and Neil Thurman, both of Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany, Volume 23, Issue 11, addresses a problem of professional media ethics performance from which we in Israel could and should benefit. The article, “Contagious accuracy norm violation in political journalism: A cross-national investigation of how news media publish inaccurate political information” locates itself in the social norm theory of mis – and disinformation research.

Simply put, it investigates whether, how and under what conditions the violations of accuracy norms in political journalism become what they term “contagious.” By “contagious” they mean driving other news media in a media market to violate the accuracy norm, as well. They further sought to identify if these violations, then shift other news media towards increasingly violating the accuracy norm in political journalism, as well. In other words, if one outlet is naughty, do the others choose to permit themselves to distribute inaccurate information to keep up with the Jones?

 MK AMICHAI CHIKLI attends the House Committee meeting in the Knesset last week at which he was declared a defector. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) MK AMICHAI CHIKLI attends the House Committee meeting in the Knesset last week at which he was declared a defector. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

This subject is quite appropriate here in Israel both because of the country’s smallness, as well as the long-implanted branja culture of its media personnel. While their study perceives a media market as a region where the population can receive the same or similar television and radio station offerings, as well as other types of media such as newspapers and internet content, I would propose that in Israel, the term “market” is much closer to its original commercial sense.

Medad’s Law of Media Inaccuracy, then, would be the more money to be made, by drawing in viewers/listeners, the higher the probability of misinformation and disinformation distribution, or as they phrase it, “the higher expected benefits from publishing inaccurate political information that exists in conditions of higher competition in a media market outweigh the higher expected costs of publishing.”

Yet, there is the Collorary to Medad’s Law of Media Inaccuracy which is that in Israel, “the more right-wing/religious the government coalition, the higher the probability of misinformation and disinformation distribution”.

To be clear, misinformation is inaccurate information that is produced without the intention to harm whereas disinformation is produced with the intention to harm.

Failure for the Left 

THE STUDY of Wilczek and Thurman took place in two countries where there exist strong press councils. In Israel, the press council as well as other regulatory bodies are weak or, I suggest, part of the problem, in that they ideologically identify with the Left.

The elections were decidedly a failure for the parties of the Left and the Arab lists. The response from nearly all of Israel’s mainstream media, left-wing NGOs and the expert pundits invited to explain the situation to the watching and the listening public was to express their distraught, indicate that democracy was endangered and apply discrediting labels to the new coalition politicians so as to portray them in the most damaging reflection possible.

For example, Itamar Ben-Gvir’s party, Otzma Yehudit, has no official name in English. Neither does the Likud for that matter. But more often than not, it is translated as “Jewish Power.” To my mind, that would indicate a sense of domination rather than perhaps the term strength which is closer to the Hebrew which conveys inner stamina.

Part of the media prompts their consumers to adopt a vocabulary of special compartmentalization. You can find “The extreme wing of the nationalist religious community,” “the far-right settler movement,” “the fringe-Right,” “ultranationalist” and so forth. The names are worse in the foreign media. Truthfully, that has been an ongoing phenomenon. A resuscitated claim is that Israel’s democracy is now under immediate threat even though there is a limit to the number of times our democracy can be terminated.

After all, in 1977 they said that about Menachem Begin. Begin then went ahead and instituted liberal national policies with an emphasis on social welfare advancement and respect for the judiciary. He even made a peace treaty with Egypt. Ariel Sharon, we were told to expect, was to have imposed undemocratic rule.

He did but that was in 2004 in the interests of the Camp of Peace when he dismissed ministers he presumed would vote against his disengagement proposal. The doomsday-sayers from the Left and liberal camps, even when losing the popular vote, still rely on the media cliques that exist to assure their voice remains loud, powerful and influential, even if disproportionately.

Is Netanyahu’s trial now in the headlines as it was previously or perhaps, things are not going as the media had us convinced it would go? The outrageous expenses for Naftali Bennett’s Ra’anana compound are now old news? What has happened to the defamation suit Avigdor Liberman filed in early September against Yossi Kamisa who claimed Liberman asked him to arrange a hit on a policeman? Is MK Ahmad Tibi labeled by the media an extremist for saying on the opening day of the new Knesset that any change to the Temple Mount status quo will ignite the Mideast?

At least former Labour MK Eitan Cabel, being interviewed on Radio 103 last Tuesday, was allowed to observe regarding the heavily criticized presumed involvement of Sarah Netanyahu in her husband’s politics that “there were very few wives of prime ministers that were not involved to this or that degree, the difference being that then the media was not that intrusive. I do not know if Sarah’s involvement is any more dramatic than Leah Rabin or Sonia Peres.”

The media, it should be stressed, rarely ignore an issue with which our politicians provide them. It is another matter of whether the same intensity, high profiling and repetition are devoted to the item. Has there been a media update on whatever happened to that Meretz T-shirt wearer who, on Election Day, pressed tefillin to his private parts? With intra-community Arab violence soaring, does the media question Arab MKs, if not daily, then weekly, to address the issue?

When the media select topics to highlight or downplay, the media consumer is provided with inaccurate information. When the media employ different values to judge a person or an event, an even unintended result could be delegitimization. That, too, is a threat to our democracy.

The writer is an analyst and opinion commentator on political, cultural and media issues.