Media comment: It’s all in the context

Media context harms the media itself but also our democratic society, which desperately needs a context- free media to uphold it.

Microphone crowd performance audience 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Microphone crowd performance audience 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Last week, Melissa Harris-Perry had to apologize for her MSNBC show which included a comic “year in review” program. In one segment, a photo displayed Governor Mitt Romney’s grandchildren, including his adopted grandson, who is African-American. Some of the captions of the photos were nasty.
She admitted that ground rules were broken and then declared, “We’re generally appreciative of everyone who offered serious criticisms of last Sunday’s program, and I am reminded that our fiercest critics can sometimes be our best teachers.”
Here in Israel, not only are critics of the media not appreciated by the media, in most cases they are ignored, too often becoming objects of ridicule. At best, the response most often heard by those criticized is usually, “Since we’re criticized both from the Left and the Right, we must be doing something right.” Of course, the possibility theoretically exists that they may be doing everything wrong.
Nevertheless, it is legitimate to ask if the media really is biased and/or unethical or is the problem with the perceptions of biased viewers and listeners? Is bias just a matter of a chronic sloppiness, or is there something more intrinsic? What can we in Israel learn from media ethics studies from abroad? Katherine Fink and Michael Schudson of Columbia University point to a major development, whereby journalism has turned itself into a news manager and a political power player. Their article in January 2014’s Journalism labels as “contextual journalism” the new style in reporting.
Whereas journalism used to be, at least theoretically, all about facts, it has metamorphosized into interpretation.
What today’s journalists do is provide meaning and narrative, while facts are left far behind.
Ala Fink and Schudson, there are four categories of reporting: (a) straightforward conventional reporting; (b) contextual reporting, which includes a considerable analysis component; (c) watchdog reporting, usually involving government or big business; and (d) social empathy reporting, usually dealing with the lives of people with whom the readers are unfamiliar.
Their findings are that the frequency of classic “straight” news items has fallen, and contextual journalism has increased to nearly half of all articles they reviewed. They quote Stephen Hess, who called this type of writing “social science journalism,” which has “a clear intention of focusing on causes, not on events as such.”
An obvious problematic outgrowth of these tendencies is that the professional value of “objectivity” is becoming virtually non-existent. Objectivity, which means “truth-seeking, neutrality, ethics and credibility,” as Noel Sheppard, associate editor of NewsBusters, writes, becomes a very different thing “when the journalist’s job moves from describing events to creating interpretations.”
The most potent element discovered by polls and academic studies, consistently over a long period of time, is liberal bias in the media. A 2005 UCLA study, led by Tim Groseclose, termed it a “systematic tendency...
[of] media outlets to slant the news to the Left.”
This is reflected in negative vs. positive content coverage, as well as the framing of developments.
Bias manifests itself in two major ways: structural (bias in individual stories that favors one side in a conflict) and partisan (aggregate news coverage that systematically favors the liberal or conservative side in a political conflict).
Why is there perceived bias? One explanation offered by a 1999 study by Watts et al. attributes it to “media self-coverage and elite cue-taking.” Citizens might perceive the media as liberally biased because conservative political elites often focus their media relationship on these allegations.
A classic example is Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s famous (or infamous) May 1999 remark about the media: “They are afraid, a-f-r-a-i-d.” That speech provided his critics within the media milieu with much ammunition.
On December 28, 2012, Anat Balint, writing in Haaretz, recalled his words and asserted that “Netanyahu is one of the most hostile prime ministers to a free press that Israel has ever known... [his is] a silent yet consistent policy that can only be understood as intended to strip Israel’s media outlets of any significant power to stand up to the government and its current elected leader.”
Last time we turned a page, scrolled a screen or turned on the television or radio, it was our distinct impression that all is well with our media’s freedom.
The power it has in dictating the agenda and framing stories has not diminished appreciatively, if at all.
Some would think it has only increased. In contrast to Balint, we believe that the real problem with our media is its bias, not its freedom.
Social empathy reporting is big in Israel. Consider the continuing campaign on behalf of persons, mainly from Africa, who entered Israel illegally. The reporters sent to cover the stories are usually, if not exclusively, those whose beat is termed “social welfare.” Their language and concepts pass on a highly politicized point of view. One may only wonder what the response of the “human rights” groups in Israel would be if, instead of using such terms as “refugees,” “asylum- seekers,” or even “work migrants,” the migrants were to be referred to as “illegal settlers attempting to occupy another people’s territory.”
The very use of concepts such as “rights” is a matter of context rather than truth and reflects media bias, for do not Israelis suffering from the presence of these migrants also have rights? It would not be too difficult to guess that if legal affairs reporters or security or police correspondents were sent to cover the events, the reporting would at least sound different. The editors are here at fault perhaps even more than the journalists, limiting the coverage to one area of what is news but ignoring its other aspects. Since the editors adopt the line of interpretation that this story is already an internal one rather than an external threat, that these infiltrators are somehow already “Israeli,” half the struggle of those groups promoting this issue has already been won.
An example of contextual bias in Israel was when a certain newspaper persisted in interviewing for background and commentary only those legal experts whose opinion was that Avigdor Liberman would be found guilty. They were quite surprised to find out how wrong they were when Liberman was declared innocent.
In the same context, consider some of our media’s reaction to Liberman’s suggestion that while no Arab need be removed from his home, Israel’s border could be redrawn so that Umm el-Fahm residents would be in the new State of Palestine. We’ll ignore some of the more extreme responses suggesting that he is preparing the ground for a “new Nakba,” but if the context is a citizenship issue, is any reporter dealing with the fact that in 1949, none of the Arabs in Israel were asked if they wished to be Israeli or not, and that perhaps this is also part of the current issue? Media surrounds us. It is in our homes and cars. More often than not, the television is on in our homes for hours. Many news websites are free. The media, more often than not, is providing us with context, sometimes at the expense of facts. This makes it all the more difficult for the public to decide what is important and what is not, what is right and what is wrong, what is acceptable social behavior and what is not. The result is a muddled society, whose trust in the media is low.
Media context harms the media itself but also our democratic society, which desperately needs a context- free media to uphold it.
The writers are, respectively, vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (