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Shira Tamir
Random observations on the fascinating world of Israeli government & politics

You Can’t Handle the Truth: The Role of Media in War

Credit: Basel Yazouri, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Journalists and policemen surround an ambulance in Gaza on July 8, 2014. / Credit: Basel Yazouri, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The cornerstone of most journalism is to tell the story as it is, objectively and impartially. Yet in war-torn nations like Israel, the battleground extends beyond physical conflicts and spills into the realm of media. Journalistic principles face a complex challenge, and unbiased reporting, particularly during wartime, becomes a delicate dance. It’s a struggle between duty and allegiance, a tightrope walk journalists navigate as they balance professional obligations with patriotic demands.

Amidst war’s harsh realities, Israelis seek patriotism and affirmation of their narrative. The facts, raw and unfiltered, assume a secondary role as journalists are summoned to be the nation’s voice in the global cacophony of perspectives. The expectation for journalists to prioritize “nation” over “profession” during wartime is not a mere suggestion but a necessity deeply rooted in the fabric of Israeli society. The national-cultural community calls upon them to play a role in ‘hasbara’, to be the nation’s representative and its weapon in the battle of images and soundbites. Selective reporting is expected to shape public opinion both domestically and abroad. This is what the people want.

For Israeli journalists, it’s not just about avoiding verbal attacks, and sometimes even threats. By criticizing the government or military in wartime, especially in the early stages of a war, journalists risk losing viewers, readers, and worse, being branded as traitors. In the “only democracy in the Middle East,” the media often finds itself self-censoring. The uncomfortable truth takes a backseat to the demands of nationalism, patiently waiting for the storm to pass and the dust to settle.

A study by Elbaz and Bar-Tal (2019) reveals the multifaceted reasons for self-censorship among Israeli journalists during times of conflict, reasons such as:

• Maintaining national consensus
• Mobilizing citizen support of war
• Fear of undermining motivation of soldiers
• Fear of personal sanctions
• Fear of harming relationships with sources

Following Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, Israelis, including journalists, face restrictions on entering the coastal enclave. This has led to a notable absence of on-the-ground reporting on the struggles of Palestinians in Israeli media. Although Israeli media occasionally feature footage and news content from international sources about Gaza, such coverage is marginalized and receives minimal airtime.

Left-wing outlets like Haaretz historically delve into uncomfortable aspects of the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict which many in the mainstream public dismiss. In the recent Gaza war, the far-right Channel 14 (Now14) has also played an interesting role, surprisingly covering more footage of the chaos and destruction in Gaza than most Israeli mainstream media. In fact, Now14 has featured a sort of scoreboard on their homepage, detailing the number of casualties and structural damage in Gaza since the start of the war (pictured below).

Credit: Now14.co.il / Dec 30, 2023

Now14 openly advertises these numbers because, for their audience, death and destruction in Gaza are seen as a “win”; it means that we are one step closer to strengthening the security of the State of Israel. But if one takes a deeper look at this scoreboard, you will notice it labels all Gazan casualties as “terrorists” (מחבלים) and the injured as “Palestinians” (פלשתינים). This helps their readers simplify a complex reality, neatly fitting into the narrative of “surgical strikes,” indicating IDF precision and morality.

But as journalist Michael Sfard writes in Haaretz:

Israeli television channels shape our collective consciousness not only through what they show, but also, and perhaps mainly, through what they hide from us. That is why we are shocked when 153 countries in the UN General Assembly demand a ceasefire and only ten oppose it; when 13 of the 15 members of the Security Council support the resolution requiring an end to the hostilities and only one casts a veto; when campuses in the Western world become the scene of demonstrations against Israel. The horrific scenes that many of the students take to the streets, Israelis do not see.

This may also explain why in the midst of this media storm, “Al Jazeera” was one of the top five media searches among Israelis in 2023, according to Google Trends. Why did so many Israelis turn to the same Qatar-based media network that government ministers have been trying to shut down or censor for supporting Hamas? It’s possible that some were searching it simply out of curiosity; to see what all the fuss was about. Or perhaps the answer lies in the fact that 21% of Israeli citizens are from the Arab community who may have been seeking news and updates on the war without the filters of Israeli media.

For some Googlers, like myself, occasionally checking in on Al Jazeera provided a window into a world that I wouldn’t necessarily see otherwise. While they are clearly biased and twist the facts to fit their own narrative, they still offer a chance to hear about events that the Israeli public doesn’t talk about, to see images that the Israeli media doesn’t show, or to hear interviews that most Israelis will never hear unless they actively choose to seek out more information and perspectives.

Credit: Google Trends (2023)

Ultimately, we find ourselves trapped in a paradox. We demand the world acknowledge Hamas’ atrocities on October 7th – the brutal massacres, the rapes, the violence, the hostage abductions, the evil. Our military even curated 47 minutes of raw, unedited footage of some of these atrocities, heart-wrenching moments in time captured from terrorist body cams, cellphones, victim dashboard cams, and surveillance cameras. Israel has held private screenings of this film, titled “Bearing Witness,” for international media and other select viewers in an attempt to counter those who minimize the magnitude of the attacks, or deny it altogether. Some international reporters who viewed it were brought to tears, left the room, or called to turn it off.

The Israeli Knesset also held screenings of the film for present and past MKs. One soldier I recently spoke with on the train told me his unit was made to watch this compilation right before the start of their ground operation in Gaza. I don’t know if this was true for other units as well, but according to him, the purpose was to motivate the soldiers, and he was definitely motivated.

Credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit

At the same time, we shy away from facing the rest of the picture, such as the results and consequences of our ongoing military operations. The haunting images of Gaza’s plight and destruction are cast away to the shadows. The cries of mourning mothers and the faces of victims on the “other side” are sanitized, shielded from the Israeli public’s eyes. Statements or threats by Hamas are dismissed as psychological warfare.

We wake up almost every morning to the tragic news of more IDF soldiers killed in combat, many of whom dropped everything to mobilize for reserve duty, and occasional reports of hostages found dead. We mourn the loss of our friends, families, and strangers. In many of these cases, we don’t learn all the details surrounding their deaths, but in our militaristic society, victims of war are generally accepted as part of our existence as a state. This is difficult enough for us to process, in and of itself.

In the end, there seems to be an inherent aversion to facing the full, unfiltered truth about both sides of the conflict, particularly during times of war. It’s a sobering realization that perhaps, deep down, these harsh realities are simply not something we’re prepared to confront. We don’t necessarily want the whole truth because we can’t handle it.

About the Author
Shira Tamir is an Israeli-American 'returning resident' with a growing passion for government, politics and media. She is currently pursuing her undergraduate degree in Communication and Political Science at Bar-Ilan University. When she's not caught up in her studies, she enjoys traveling, photography, nature, coffee, being in the moment, and playing the drums. Shira is fluent in English, Hebrew, body language, sarcasm, and memes.
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