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Media Biased against Ethiopian Immigrants, Study Says

The media favor Soviet bloc immigrants and are biased against Ethiopians, according to a new Haifa University study.
By Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu
First Publish: 2/16/2010, 1:41 PM / Last Update: 2/16/2010, 2:01 PM

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The media favor Soviet bloc immigrants and are biased against Ethiopians, according to a new Haifa University study by Communications Department researcher Germaw Mengistu. The study covered two recent waves of immigrants, one from the former Soviet bloc and the other from Ethiopia.

*An immigrant group that is culturally remote from the hosting society receives less immigration support and its cultural foreignness is more marked," concludes Mengistu. "An immigrant group sharing similar cultural characteristics receives immigration support and is also expected to become absorbed and integrated."

Exposure of the cultural aspects of Ethiopian Jewish immigration to Israel in the Israeli media has focused on immigrants' cultural ignorance and 'astonishment' at their proving basic technological skills, according to the study. Immigrants from the former Soviet Union were tagged as "belonging" to Israeli culture and therefore labeled as "ours."

"An immigrant group that is culturally remote from the hosting society receives less immigration support; its cultural foreignness is more marked and unsuccessful absorption is blamed on the cultural gap," Mengistu wrote. "An immigrant group sharing similar cultural characteristics, on the other hand, receives immigration support and is also expected to become absorbed and integrated in the socioeconomic, cultural and political system. When such a group culturally segregates itself, it is interpreted by the media as a threat."

The study set out to examine the differences in media coverage of the two immigration groups and to identify the factors behind these differences. Mengistu surveyed 7,200 popular quality newspaper issues published between 1970 and 2004.

While the percentage of articles on cultural integration and segregation is similar for both groups, the main difference is found in the articles relating to cultural disparity: 7.2% of the articles on Ethiopian immigrants and culture related to the differences between their culture and Israeli culture, while 2.6% of such articles were on Soviet immigrants.

A qualitative analysis of the articles shows that the main narrative relating to immigrant Ethiopian Jews was on their cultural ignorance, primarily their inability to cope in a city environment, and lack of technological comprehension and skills. When a published article did relate to how the Ethiopian immigrant demonstrates technological capabilities, it was accompanied by wonderment at such skills.

Another significant difference between the two immigrant groups was found in a survey of their religious-historic status. The question of Jewish identity did not arise with regard to the massive Soviet-bloc immigration of the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s, the media generally criticized questions concerning the Judaism of Russian immigrants, many of whom were non-Jews. This criticism was interpreted as emanating from a fear of harming the immigrant population that brings great benefits to Israel, Mengistu explained,

However, the coverage of the religious-historic roots of Ethiopian immigrants related to a "common Jewish father" and their Jewish affinity was probed, with attention to issues of assimilation and lack of religious knowledge.

The researcher noted that once Soviet-bloc immigrants began to form a cultural identity of their own, they began to be considered a threat and most of the reporting began to criticize this trend. According to Mengistu, this reinforces the main conclusion of his study that the main factor influencing the reporting approach is the cultural position of an immigrant group in comparison with the majority.

Surveying media reports relating to members of both groups, he discovered that 61 percent were negative, 21 percent were positive and 18 percent were neutral. In the 1990s, 17 percent of the articles on immigrants from Soviet bloc related to crime but the figure rose to 34 percent in the past decade.