The Media & Israel: The Advocacy Challenge

Key Facts

  • Canadian media vary widely in their attitudes toward Israel but there is still a tendency to take the easy route to a story that will catch interest, omitting extra research and nuance.
  • Some journalists admit that many resort to clichés and to emphasizing bad news, which sells.
  • Although Israel is not credited for providing a safe, welcome environment, reporters want to be based in Israel for conflict coverage
  • If conflict stories comprise all the news consumers see about Israel, they are provided a distorted picture of the country

More Information

A frequently heard complaint from those who advocate on Israel’s behalf is that “the media” are biased against Israel and predisposed to focus on negative stories and ignore newsworthy positive stories that would help place Israel in proper perspective.

Speaking about “the media” generally is not accurate in the Canadian context because there are many media organizations expressing a wide range of views about Israel.  So when one speaks about “the media” the question to ask is whether one is referring to Postmedia and its papers across the country, including the National Post; or to the Globe and Mail; the Toronto Star; the Sun Media papers; the francophone media in Quebec; to the CBC / Radio-Canada; CTV; Global TV; or to many smaller local media outlets.

If a general complaint can be made about “the media” – something that allows us to understand the nature of media coverage in general – it’s the sort that was expressed long ago in a Globe and Mail editorial that had nothing to do with Israel but was critical of news outlets for “fueling unfounded fears” even for “whipping up hysteria.” The story in this case was an environmental article that reported severe risks of exposure to urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI), which were later shown to be greatly exaggerated.  In a rare instance of self-criticism, the editorial said: “Mired in lazy habits, we prefer the cut-and-dried to the complex, the cry of outrage to the cautious rumination.” It chastised the media for failing to maintain perspective, and it concluded that the media fail “to maintain a sense of proportion.”

The same complaints apply to much of the coverage of Israel – where many journalists do not research the full range of facts but resort to standard negative clichés. Many journalists treat Israel with obsessive negative attention, thereby failing to maintain a “sense of proportion” and “[preferring] the cut-and-dried to the complex.”

This complaint certainly does not apply to all journalists covering Israel but it does apply to many who become subject to a “pack mentality” and are influenced substantially by European correspondents with little concern for the separation of fact and opinion.  According to this “pack,” Israel is almost always depicted as the “victimizer” of the innocent Palestinian “victims,” reducing the story to the familiar stereotype of “David” becoming “Goliath.” Reports from major European-based wire services such Reuters and Agence-France Presse (AFP), which are widely picked up in the Canadian media, frequently follow this framework. The world’s largest wire service agency, the Associated Press (AP) is somewhat less prone, but certainly not immune, to accepting this framework for Israel-related stories.

There is another phenomenon that we need to understand about the media in general which, to a great extent, also affects coverage of Israel. It was expressed several years ago by prominent Globe and Mail Ottawa-based columnist Jeffrey Simpson who wrote the following:

Journalists, being a suspicious lot, thrive on bad news. Wars, famine, natural and human disasters, strife, conflict, scandal, error, malfeasance, snafus, deficits, murder, mayhem… you name it, we love it. Bad news sells. That’s been a fixture in this business since somebody wrote down the story of Cain and Abel. Good news, by contrast, is something dangerously Pollyannaish. 

Even though “If it bleeds, it leads” may be a motto for much of what is covered in the news, it need not be this way.

Simpson’s column appeared under the title “It’s time for the bad news business to revel in some good news.” With respect to Israel, this title is ironic since Simpson is one of the journalists who is typically harshly, and – arguably – unfairly, critical of that country and, as a columnist, not at all given to paying attention to even “some” good news that deserves to be told about Israel.

In a competitive and rapidly changing news environment, bad news sells. Consequently, the “if it bleeds, it leads” approach often carries the day.  Journalists look for opportunities to cover conflict – news that sells – and from nowhere in the world is it safer, more convenient or easier for journalists to cover conflict-related stories than from Israel.  By contrast, consider just how risky it is to try to cover the conflict raging in Syria or in numerous other dangerous conflict zones around the globe, like the Congo and Somalia or, in recent years, Chechnya and Sri Lanka – where even the most intrepid reporter risks kidnap or even death.

This just illustrates the extent of the problem faced by Israel and its advocates.   As a modern, liberal democratic state, Israel is, in effect, a victim of its own openness, whereas Israel’s Arab neighbours, including the Palestinians, are mostly closed societies where expression is greatly restricted or forbidden outright.  As a result of this disparity, which is rarely explicitly identified by Western reporters, Israel has long been home to one of the largest bodies of foreign correspondents in the world – about 350 full-time and, during periods of conflict, more than 1,000 journalists. Although Israel is not credited for providing a safe, welcome environment, reporters want to be based in Israel for conflict coverage.

Israel’s own media are frequently intensely critical of Israeli government policies, a tendency that makes it convenient for foreign correspondents to repeat the criticism without worry about Israeli government censure or retribution.  In short, although this is a price that Israeli democracy is willing to pay, Israel becomes a victim of its own openness.

It is rare to find any Western journalist, especially one who has reported from Israel for a major news outlet for any length of time, who will admit publicly areas where he or she and, by implication, his or her colleagues fail in their coverage of the Jewish state.  An exception is Martin Fletcher who covered Israel and the Middle East for more than 30 years for NBC News and European TV and who, in his 2010 book, Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation, does just that. He shows another important side of Israel that is rarely seen on nightly newscasts, including, he admits, on his own.

Fletcher spent weeks walking Israel’s 110-mile historic coastline from the Lebanon border to the Gaza Strip, stopping along the way in various communities and meeting some fascinating characters, both Jewish and Arab. As Fletcher explains, he wanted take readers

beyond the familiar yet constricted stories of guns and bombs and closer to the true nature of this unique country. I wanted to write a book that would have a very simple, often overlooked, message: This quirky, surprising, complex, difficult, and disturbing country is actually a great place.

Fletcher reflects on the irony of covering Israel:

For all the attention focused on this tiny land, and all the effort spent on fixing its problems, Israel has to be the most analyzed yet least understood country in the world.

Fletcher is honest enough to acknowledge his own involvement in this one-sided coverage:

As a reporter covering Israel and the region…since 1973, I myself have hardly been blameless.

He admits that he was focused mainly on stories involving conflict in the West Bank and Gaza but adds that it’s also the editors in New York who expect these sorts of reports and who are typically not receptive to anything outside the established storyline.

One cannot diminish the newsworthiness of conflict-driven stories, however, as Fletcher notes, if conflict stories comprise all the news consumers see about Israel, they are provided a distorted picture of the country. Another distortion, which Fletcher does not mention and to which he is not entirely immune, is the tendency of many Western reporters to cover the conflict mainly from an over-simplified point of view that sees Arabs only as historic victims, not as responsible agents in their own right whose leadership has, time and again, rejected Israel’s offers for peace because they do not accept the principle of Jewish sovereignty within any borders.

Fletcher tries to set the record straight, if not to make amends.

I believe that journalists should strive to report the whole story, because I’m convinced that Israel and its people have long gotten a raw deal in the world’s eyes. Don’t get me wrong: Israel is hardly a Garden of Eden. Building a country on land inhabited by another people was never going to be anything less than excruciating. But relentless insistence on Israel’s faults, rather than fair recognition of its virtues, has increasingly legitimized a question that applies to no other country on the planet.

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