DJ Schneeweiss

A Quick Guide for the Media-Perplexed

Unlike tobacco companies, news companies aren’t obliged to place health warnings all over their products, despite their many inherent flaws. So we, the consumers, have to look after our media health ourselves. How?

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The world’s media unleashed a firestorm of anti-Israel hatred in various countries when they rashly and erroneously reported on Tuesday October 17th that Israel had bombed a Palestinian hospital killing 500 innocents.

When Israel rejected this libel, parroted by the world’s media straight from the mouths of Hamas’s very own “Gaza Health Ministry”, many in the media went into default “he said/she said” mode, reporting that Hamas was claiming that Israel did it and Israel was saying it didn’t. They then justified this approach by saying they were being impartial.

But as one meme going around put it, a journalist’s job isn’t to tell us that Jack says it’s raining and Jill says it’s sunny; the journalist’s job is to go outside, check for themselves and tell us what’s actually happening!

Obvious, right?  So simple.

But it’s not that simple, for two main reasons:

Firstly, in the midst of war, it is genuinely difficult, even for the best, most heroic professional journalists, to get to the truth quickly. They often don’t have direct access to the events, they’re dependent on local sources who can easily manipulate or mislead them, and it can take time and meticulous effort to get to the truth and understand what has actually happened.

Secondly, many journalists don’t think their job is to find the facts. If you ask them, they will tell you that their job isn’t about facts, it’s about telling “the story”.

While not unreasonable at first glance – stories are often how we make sense of the world – this story-telling version of the journalist’s craft hides an absolutely crucial aspect, rarely made explicit: that the journalist isn’t merely the narrator of other peoples’ stories. S/he is also a protagonist in the wider cultural story that envelops us all.

So who are these unheralded protagonists in our lives?

Many are fabulous professionals, determined to get the facts out for the world to see. But many are also rather mediocre, often ignorant or lazy or both, neither interested nor familiar with the history of the events they are covering. Even worse, many who work in journalism – including the faceless editors and bookers and stringers and fixers who none of us ever see but who have immense impact on the news we are fed – are activists who deliberately use their media platforms to advance their own world view and their own political agendas.

If we zoom out from the individual journalist to the media brands themselves, it’s clear that for all their protestations of impartiality, they’re all in the business of reflecting and catering to certain worldviews and not others. Hence the contrast between MSNBC and Fox News, between the Guardian and the Telegraph, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, or Haaretz and Israel Hayom.  Not one of them, not even the heralded BBC, is actually impartial. Each has its own axe to grind, its own worldview, its own cultural and ideological and commercially-interested lenses through which events are interpreted and presented.

And so, when legacy newsrooms don’t have the technological or cultural knowledge to sift through publicly available evidence, or the time and editorial resources to evaluate and consider conflicting reports, they fall back on familiar templates and comfortable formulae – their built-in biases and blindspots – baking these even further into their coverage, and thus into the perceptions of all who consume their output.

When it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, for many of these outlets, populated by many agenda-driven staff, these built-in biases lead them consistently to present the story as one of weak, disempowered Palestinians being controlled (or worse) by strong, calculating Israel. Events are processed through this pre-conceived template, with Palestinian volition and choice air-brushed out of the narrative, in favour of a caricature morality play where one side is always right and the other always wrong, one side whose decisions are closely examined,  the other whose choices are freely excused.

Given these built-in tendencies, it may be comforting to think that their colossal failure on Tuesday October 17th signals the beginning of the end of the legacy news organizations, but I’m not so sure.

When you watch the self-serving gyrations of the BBC as it tries to defend its unconscionable inability to describe Hamas behaviour as terror, you can see why.  All the big guns like John Simpson and his ilk are pulled out, not to investigate and understand what has gone wrong with the corporation’s moral and human compass, but to protect the corporate brand.

That’s where these BBC reporters’ true allegiance lies. Not to you, the viewer; not to the simple moral responsibility to tell us who is deliberately killing innocents and who is defending themselves from that mortal threat. No, the BBC journalist’s ultimate allegiance is to the BBC. To the prestige and reach of their corporate brand.

What to do?

Unlike tobacco companies, news companies aren’t obliged to place health warnings all over their products, despite their many inherent flaws. So we, the consumers, have to look after our media health ourselves. How?

First, we have to be active listeners, not passive consumers.

As we listen and watch and read, we have to keep in mind all of the processes of newsgathering that went into the item we’re consuming, and caution ourselves that what we’re being fed is absolutely not the whole story and may well have been processed and packaged with agendas that diverge from our own desire simply to be informed.

For example, when we see graphics comparing casualties on both sides, we mustn’t allow ourselves to be lulled into ignoring the fundamental moral distinction between aggressor and victim, between those who launch war and kill out of bloodlust and hatred and those who are forced to kill to protect their families and their homes.

Second, we have to balance our media diet.

Just as our physical health requires that we avoid junk food and maintain a balanced and nourishing diet, so too we have to ensure that our awareness of the world around us is built in a balanced nutritious way. Watching national or international news outlets is not enough (nor is staying in the confines of our pre-existing social media feed).

To understand Israel and its reality, go to Israeli media outlets like the Times of Israel. Go to Twitter/X and follow journalists and commentators like Nadav Eyal, Shany Mor, Haviv Rettig Gur, Einat Wilf Eylon Levy, Yossi Klein Halevi and others.

We need to proactively seek the perspective, detail, nuance and empathy that will equip us to balance and counteract the international media bombardment, and navigate the debates and discussions happening at home, at work and across society that the media generate.

Traditional national and international media are today incapable (and sometimes actually unwilling) to inform in ways that help us and our families, friends and networks navigate the reality around us. We need to recognize this sad truth and take control of our media health, just as we do with our physical health. It’s up to us to make sure we’re consuming media nutritiously, and not to make do with the ultra-processed products that the big media brands are pumping into lives.

About the Author
DJ Schneeweiss, a former Israeli diplomat, served as a policy aide to various foreign ministers, Press Secretary at Israel’s London Embassy, Deputy Ambassador to China, Consul General in Toronto and Director of Digital Diplomacy. He currently works with the National Library of Israel.
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