Cultural Prism: 'The sky is falling!'

Negative perception-shaping by Israeli web portals has a damaging influence on the national psyche and even on our national resilience.

Graffiti sprayed on Supreme Court (photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)
Graffiti sprayed on Supreme Court
(photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)
Most Israeli web portals, considered by many to be mainstream media outlets, are in fact equivalent to the sleaziest tabloids abroad. Not only do they address the lowest common denominator with trashy content, but their treatment of news is unprofessional and manipulative.
The Israel Press Council’s Rules of Professional Ethics of Journalism – prohibiting untrue, inaccurate, misleading or deceptive reporting – are brutally trampled upon. Members of the Israeli public are regarded as ignorant fools who can easily be deceived and tricked into believing anything.
This is not a nuance relating to a marginal segment of our media, but a wide-sweeping characteristic of online media outlets, reflecting a deep cultural flaw of national magnitude.
The business model of the companies operating these portals is based on capturing people’s attention in order to boost ratings, which drive their income. All means justify this goal, including exaggerating, twisting and making up stuff. It’s about money, not truth.
A fundamental flaw is copying from tabloids and other foreign media sources without proper verification, and sloppy translation, which explains this week’s report by Walla about a French aircraft carrier arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport.
Israeli web portals demonstrate classic yellow journalism by aggressively promoting gossip and celebrity idolization rife with sexual content. But there are deeper and more troubling layers.
From insignificant anecdotes to the most serious issues, information is deliberately processed in order to trigger extreme emotions – from curiosity and voyeurism to anger, anxiety, fear and frustration. Mark Twain described this practice in his autobiography: “They publish every loathsome thing they can get hold of, and if the simple facts are not odious enough they exaggerate them.”
Following the Paris attacks, comments made by UK Home Secretary Theresa May and former Irish politician Dermot Ahern led one portal to publish this headline: “Also Britain and Ireland have decided: Israel is to blame for terror.” As ridiculous as it sounds, talkbacks reflected full adoption of the “everybody hates us” narrative.
Another media outlet recently reported that, due to strained US-Israel relations, Israel has canceled a combined exercise with the US (not true).
Events are usually described in terms such as incident, mishap, tragedy and failure, aiming to instill a sense of hopelessness and rage towards those who messed up. When something happens, before the dust has settled, the public is bombarded with “tough questions” and calls for investigation and decapitation.
The July 8 grounding of planes and the NYSE in the US was addressed by Israeli portals using dramatic headlines implying a cyber-attack, while in the US reports were relatively reserved and fact-based, ascertaining that computer-glitches were most likely the cause.
One of the media’s favorites is making a big deal out of graffiti. Last year it was “Synagogue vandalized” when in fact it was a public wall surrounding the compound in Tel Aviv.
Recently it was “Offensive graffiti on the Supreme Court” when the relatively mild words were written on an external wall facing the street. In both cases, the public was deliberately misled, by combining close-up footage to conceal the not-so-dramatic location, and careful wording to enhance the insult and outrage.
Every minor technical malfunction at Ben-Gurion Airport is made into “moments of horror” and “miraculous escape from disaster.” The word horror (or terror - Eyma in Hebrew) is one of the most popular words in Israeli web portals.
As classic tabloids often do, portals make extensive use of pseudoscience, myths and attribution to divine intervention.
It’s not that Israeli journalists are ignorant, they just think the public is. And it’s not that they are more religiously oriented, they simply know that attributing events to miracles leads to more mouse-clicks.
It is not uncommon to see headlines such as “mysterious monster – scientists baffled,” and then find that they had copied a story from a British tabloid, and that the monster was really a dead fish.
Israelis read last week that astronaut Scott Kelly may have captured a UFO on film at the International Space Station.
Only the last sentence revealed that it was probably a part of the ISS. The Daily Mail readers got: “UFO hunters mistake part of the ISS in image as evidence of aliens.”
One of their favorites is reporting predicted asteroid flybys as possible disasters, with made-up terms such as “close impact trajectory” and lies such as “real probability of asteroid impact,” when there’s a predicted 0.00008% chance.
When International Space Station astronauts recently moved into the Soyuz spacecraft as a precaution due to anticipated proximity of space debris, Ynet described it as a “near-disaster” under the title “Horror in space.”
A popular method is placing sensational quotes in headlines, often by referencing an insignificant comment made by an insignificant person or taking things out of context.
This enables meaningless headlines such as: “We’ve had enough!” after someone yelled it at a rally.
In September, Ynet exposed the troubling news that “The IDF doesn’t internalize that Hamas has naval commandos.”
Only halfway through the article was it revealed that the navy’s chief of intelligence had actually spoke of the perception of some officers in the IDF.
There’s also the inherent facet of most Israeli media sources, which is rigid political alliances and protection or promotion of business interests.
The result of this culture of narrative manipulation is that our perception of reality is gravely warped, and our attitude towards everything around us is negatively biased.
If this is pure yellow journalism, why make such a fuss? Doesn’t the public know to put it in perspective? Surely people don’t buy this rubbish at face value, right? Wrong. Unlike other countries, in Israel we hardly have any mainstream online media alongside the tabloids. The most popular web portals are the prime source of information and are shallow and yellow as yellow gets.
I believe that the problem is amplified here for several reasons: a developed culture of unprofessionalism in this field, lack of public feedback and backlash, weak to non-existent ethical and professional restraining mechanisms, and charlatan and slipshod translations.
Some Israeli portals exceed the shallowness of the tabloids from which they regularly copy, when they not only translate poorly, but add extra twists to amplify the drama.
Occasionally I find that Israeli editors add insult to injury by omitting the parts where foreign tabloids have added a grain of truth or hint of uncertainty. Without a shred of factual information left, Israelis are left with worthless garbage.
With language and culture barriers, and with few alternative sources, we are forced to swallow this poisonous concoction.
It can’t kill us, but it’s certainly making us very ill.
I believe that beyond the obvious effects of exposure to shallow content and misinformation on an array of issues, this negative perception-shaping has a damaging influence on the national psyche and even on our national resilience.
These sensationalizing, scandal-mongering portals are dumbing us down and pushing us to extreme thoughts, extreme words and extreme actions. Our polarized discourse is despicable enough as it is, without the extra traffic following fabricated news.
What can we do about it? On a personal level, internalize that most Israeli portals are not “media” or “journalism” but shallow entertainment tabloids. Don’t believe anything you read – not only predictions of imminent destruction or evidence of paranormal activity, but also what looks like regular “news.” Critically comment online when you see absurdities and don’t let yourself be treated as a fool.
On a national level, we should take measures to promote honest and balanced reporting. Freedom of the press is important in a democracy, but there must be limits. We should campaign stepping up enforcement of current guidelines, starting with sticking to the TRUTH.
Media companies should take it upon themselves to adhere to basic journalism ethics, invest more in quality control, and hire professional translators to better bridge the language and culture gap. The ability to edit online should utilized more frequently, especially when readers point out mistakes.
Food for thought: We Israelis are so sensitive to media bias when it is directed against us. Maybe we should be more attuned to what our own media is doing to us.
As a testimony to our denial, under the Hebrew term “yellow journalism” in Wikipedia, there is a tiny section about yellow journalism in Israel: It says that there isn’t any.
One last piece of advice which will save you from all this – read The Jerusalem Post! By the way – the sky isn’t really falling. I just thought it would harness your attention.
The writer is a cross-cultural analyst and consultant. He can be reached at