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Cautious optimism for the established media

Trust in Israeli media is on the rise, and that's a valuable lifeline to those whose job it is to keep the public informed
Illustrative. Hebrew newspapers. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Illustrative. Hebrew newspapers. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The 2018 Israeli Democracy Index reveals that the 2016 distrust by the Israeli public of the media, which reached an all-time low of 24 percent, was rock bottom. In 2017, the public’s trust of the media has grown, a trend evidenced in the fact that, today, 31% of the general population, and 33% of the Jewish population, report that they trust the media.

It might be claimed that this upward trend simply reflects the fact that the Israeli media landscape has undergone a much needed process of repair: internal corruption and private interests have been laid bare; efforts have been made to address biases and most of all — efforts towards diversification have been stepped up.

The reality, however, is more complex. If the rise in trust indeed reflected an acknowledgement that the media had repaired itself, it is unlikely that the Democracy Index would indicate that 58% of the public believe the media is corrupt.

Data from other countries show that the drop in Israeli public trust in the media, followed by a rise over the last two years, mirrors similar trends in the United States, and the United Kingdom. It would seem that one of the main reasons for this trend is the fact that social media, which were the strongest catalyst in uncovering private media interests and in “outing” the mainstream media, have begun to lose their sparkle. The last two years have increased public awareness of the biases built in to the social media platforms themselves; of “fake news” and how it is spread virally; of the involvement of foreign countries and political campaign managers in the cynical manipulation of public opinion via social media; and of the resulting social and political polarization. The public has come to realize that social media platforms are not the new foundations for an egalitarian public discourse, but advertising brokers seeking to maximize their own profits.

And so, the public is yearning for a “responsible adult” who can provide the needed context and interpretation of the reality, and who is committed to pursuit of the truth.

Another interesting finding is that while trust in the media among those on the Left and in the Center has almost doubled since 2016 (from 34.5% to 62.5% on the Left); the rise among those on the Right has been much smaller (from 10% to 15%).

This gap may suggest that indicators of public trust reflect not only the public’s actual confidence in institutions, but also their hostility toward those they perceive as seeking to harm those institutions. If we look at attitudes toward the police — another public watchdog and (among other things) one which  exposes corruption among senior public figures, including the prime minister — here too, we see  a boost in trust among Israelis defining  themselves politically as belonging to the Left or the Center.

It is possible that what we are witnessing is a reaction from groups who oppose Netanyahu to claims leveled by the prime minister and his close supporters in recent years that “the media are guilty.” Quite possibly, these groups believe that these all-out attacks on the media, while they may contain some kernel of truth, are also politically motivated. This realization has resulted in a significant boost in trust in the media among those on the Left and in the Center, who in any case are no fans of Netanyahu. Incidentally, the modest rise in trust among those on the Right indicates that here too — some are also not easily buying into the prime minister’s claims.

In this context, it should be noted that some of the criticism of media bias in recent years has also come from media outlets and journalists who view attacking their competitors on an ongoing basis as part of their mission and their job. The fact that the drop in trust has bottomed out may indicates that the public has lost faith in those individuals in the media who, instead of conducting journalistic investigations and be the first to surface issues for public discourse, opt to engage in criticism of their colleagues in the press.

To sum up, whether the rise in public trust is a response to attacks on the media, to reforms in the media itself, or to a growing realization of the flaws inherent in social media, it holds out a lifeline for the established media. Despite its struggle for survival, the  established media, should make the most of this opportunity and reposition itself as an institution which  conducts meaningful and high-quality investigations, upholds principles of transparency and diversity, and works to protect democracy, integrity, and public ethics.

About the Author
Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler is head of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Media Reform project.
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