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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

All the news that’s fit to print (but isn’t)

Do you have any idea what is going on in Israel these days regarding COVID-19? Israelis certainly don’t, as the topic seems to have dropped off the news radar almost completely. This says a lot about Israel’s media situation – and perhaps even more about Israeli society in general.

Journalism is a funny profession – because it’s a business. This basically means that what the news media present is not what professional journalists think the public should know, but rather what they know the public is interested in. The two are sometimes in sync, as during the first two years of the Corona pandemic. Many times, though, they are not on the same plane – either out of public exhaustion (on the topic), our need for “new” news, or an emotionally misguided understanding of what’s “important.”

The COVID-19 pandemic includes all three of these. First, after two years, most of us have become inured to the death toll of the pandemic, a sort of mass psychic numbness. Second, with the steady drumbeat of depressing Corona data the public wants to receive novel news – so the monkeypox serves that “function.” Third, news consumers, as all human beings, don’t quite think rationally, distorting our sense of what’s important for us personally. In this case, with Israel’s Corona numbers (the same for most countries, the US included) well below their peak from several months ago, it’s as if the danger has passed.

Which brings us back to the opening question. So how many Israelis died from Corona this past August. If you guessed 10 or 50 or even 100, try again. The Kupat Cholim Clalit website (Israel’s largest HMO) shows that last month COVID-19 took 178 lives! And if you think that was an anomaly, in July the number was 425!!

So here’s the next question: How many Israelis have been killed in traffic accidents during the same period, August 2022? Far fewer: “only” 31. In short, an Israeli’s chance of dying from the coronavirus is about six times greater than being killed in a car crash. And yet, not only do Israelis get a running, daily news dose of traffic accidents on the radio, but they occasionally are the leading news item when more than one person is killed in a crash! And again, all this when the number of Corona victims is far higher – with nary a sign on the news (radio, TV or the press) that the pandemic is still among us and knocking off a not insignificant number of Israelis.

Why would this be so? Beyond the three socio-psychological factors noted above, there’s a famous motto in journalism: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Traffic accidents look horrendous: compressed metal, shattered glass, blood & gore – all in a public space. Conversely, Corona deaths are quiet matters, and as the saying goes: “out of sight, out of mind.” This is basic human psychology – we are drawn to violent death, almost against our will. Dying in the hospital has become “normal” – even when the cause is far from that.

Why is this important? Why am I suggesting that the media are not doing their job here? Because most Corona deaths are preventable, first by vaccination and second through mask-wearing in all public spaces (especially indoors). By removing the issue from our headlines, journalists are (very) indirectly causing unnecessary deaths by giving the impression that the danger is over – especially for the unvaccinated.

Nor can the news media claim that after more than two years “the public is tired of Corona.” Traffic accidents haven’t been occurring for over a hundred years? Well, comes the media refrain, by reporting on traffic fatalities we can exert public pressure on the government to invest more in highway dividers, roundabout circles, extra lanes etc. This too is specious, as the same argument can be made regarding Israel’s health system – by all accounts understaffed and under-equipped.

This is not to say that the public needs to receive a daily count of Corona deaths; once a week is fine (as is usually the case on Friday afternoons for that week’s traffic fatalities). However, a simple “body count” is not enough; we need to know how many Corona-related deaths occurred among the vaccinated and how many happened to those not immunized – as a percent of each these two population groups. Only then will it become obvious that vaccination still saves a significant number of lives. (Even the Kupat Cholim Clalit site, full of data, does not offer that critical breakdown – but the media could demand it, if so inclined.)

One human life is equal to any other human life. The same is true for a human death – especially if it could have been saved. The media have a responsibility not to leave the Corona battlefield just because the public is “bored” by the subject – and reporters certainly shouldn’t hide behind the excuse that “death on the roads” is journalistically sexier. If it’s human interest that they want to peddle, they can try interviewing the tearful loved ones of the departed who refused to be vaccinated. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of “material” out there for such tear-jerking reporting.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book is VIRTUALITY AND HUMANITY: VIRTUAL PRACTICE AND ITS EVOLUTION FROM PRE-HISTORY TO THE 21ST CENTURY (Springer Nature, Dec. 2021): The book's description, substantive Preface and full Table of Contents can be freely accessed here: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-16-6526-4#toc. For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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