by Prof. Eli Avraham
Most of the foreign press has moved from unsympathetic coverage of Israel to pro-Palestinian activism, yet Israel still treats foreign correspondents with kid gloves.
Recently, members of the opposition invited representatives of the foreign media to attend a debate in a subcommittee of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. The twisted portrayal of Israel in the international media is a problem that affects many Israelis from all along the political spectrum, so the invitation was nothing strange. There is a growing sense that some foreign media outlets have moved from unsympathetic coverage of Israel to activism against it, and we aren't just talking about presenting "the other side, the Palestinians," but actually distorting reality.
There are plenty of examples: failure to cite the reasons why Israel carries out strikes in Gaza; failure to mention Hamas' rocket fire and use of civilians as human shields, or why the army fired at Palestinians who were on their way to execute a terrorist attack; ignoring the incitement on the Palestinian Authority's major channels, the PA's support for those involved in terrorism or use of European and American aid funds to support terrorists' families. These all compromise a contortion of reality and scorn for the truth and journalistic ethics.
Presenting the Palestinian side as an innocent victim who only seeks justice and the right to self-determination is a perversion of what is actually going on. For most of the foreign media, the division is clear: Israel is bad, the Palestinians are good, and reports that [don't] support those roles don't become news articles, as an Associated Press editor who "came out of the closet" recently testified.
The foreign media came by the hostility toward it honestly. The foreign correspondents stationed in Israel enjoy the best of both worlds. The live in a Western country, can drive 20 minutes into Judea and Samaria, report on a violent incident or a Palestinian village suffering the "indignities of occupation," and go back to the neighborhood pub in Jerusalem that same evening. In most countries where violent conflicts exist, that's not possible. What's more, the foreign media's warped version of reality has garnered almost no response from Israel, which continues to cooperate with foreign reporters even when it's been proved that the coverage is biased. It's hard to argue that these reporters aren't exploiting the total freedom of activity they are given.
A recent editorial in the Haaretz newspaper characterized the invitation of foreign reporters to the Knesset as something unusual, but a study we conducted examining what steps various countries take to deal with problematic coverage showed that compared to other nations, Israel treats foreign correspondents with kid gloves. Many countries, including democratic ones, threaten foreign correspondents and take them to court, bar them from access to conflict area and revoke press credentials. The claim brought forth in the editorial that reporting has a negligible effect on the perception of reality is false. The media is the only way for many sectors to learn about what is happening in a conflict, and many studies have demonstrated that in the case of such dependence, the audience adopts the media's take on things. At the same time, it has been repeatedly proven that the extent to which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is covered compared to other conflicts lost all proportion long ago.
The step taken by the committee indicates that Israel is waking up and realizing that it must change its relationship with the international media. But debates like these like don't change the reality in any appreciable way. Just like what happened with the rest of the recent debates in the Knesset about what tactics Israel could adopt to deal with the calls to boycott it, the conclusions of these debates are submitted to government bodies without any research-based proof of the claims of biased coverage, without any strategic thinking and without taking advantage of the existing academic knowledge of the subject or about other countries' collective experience. The debates serve mainly to blow off steam, and after they're over, everything reverts back to normal.
To change the relationship, Israel has to establish an independent institution that will systematically track foreign media coverage, compare how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is covered compared to other asymmetric conflicts, use worldwide research on media bias, and, most important, cooperate with civil society. And the sooner the better.
Eli Avraham is a lecturer in media studies and head of the Comper Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism and Racism at the University of Haifa.
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