Overhaul Israeli press to achieve responsible journalism standards

Shoddy sensationalist reporting norms, as revealed in the COVID pandemic, harm public health and morale. Opinion.

Naama Rue , | updated: 2:28 PM

Mass media
Mass media

Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth. The sensationalist reduction of Israel mainstream news reporting hurts not only the public morale and public health, but has seeped into Israel’s international diplomatic relations. While the whole world is watching Israel as a guiding light for solutions to the pandemic, Israelis must now more than ever hold our press to a moral code of conduct.

Israelis and in fact the whole world desperately need the culture of the news industry in Israel to adhere to internationally accepted professional standards of journalistic integrity. At minimum, concerted editorial panels supported by objective scientist review and input is warranted during the crisis. The obvious mishaps that are routine elements of Israeli news reports reveal a lack of editorial oversight, and demonstrate the imperative for a complete restructuring of news departments by inserting experienced, trained and honest, upright professionals.

Amidst all the unanswered questions about COVID and vaccines, the press is obligated to cover emerging news and policies responsibly - by writing clearly what is and what is not known; by backing up conclusions with data; and by not quoting and emphasizing absurd statements from leaders. It’s no wonder that foreign news agency NBC News reported on 6 February, “Israel's handling of coronavirus seems like a success. Residents tell a different story,” citing a report that, “24 percent of Israelis approve of the government's management of the crisis.” A look at current news coverage of important issues that impact every life in Israel will cue us in to the state of madness and confusion that can be traced back to our primary information source: Israel’s news industry.

With headlines like this, who needs headlines?

The Times of Israel headline 27 January 2021, “Netanyahu warns virus strain resistant to current vaccines is inevitable” brought us to an article with zero explanation for such a claim. What is a reader to do with this alarming assertion from the Prime Minister at the virtual World Economic Forum? This headline was published just days after the same publication reported on 23 January, “A military-led task force is warning of the potential emergence of a mutated Israeli variant of the coronavirus resistant to vaccines.” Neither article offered proof of the phenomenon, yet news broke on that same day 23 January that the Ben Gurion Airport closure was being discussed.

My reactions to both of these lines was, “How can the news report such information without qualifying it? Is Israel trying to hide something? Are they closing the airport to keep a new Israeli variant from spreading around the world?” Turns out that Netanyahu’s statement at the virtual World Economic Forum can be viewed on i24 News and he immediately follows the statement about a potential vaccine-resistant mutation with, “This is the reason why Israel's main airport was closed.” Yet all news reports attributed the closure of Ben Gurion airport with keeping foreign mutations from entering the country while Israel rushes to vaccinate the adult population of Israel.

The Times of Israel should not have quoted Netanyahu’s “warning” nor the unidentified “military-led task force” without a documented, well researched explanation. Where are the editors to catch such glaring mistakes? How long will it be before Israel will process and share the genetic sequencing discoveries about new variants in the midst of the pandemic?

Bold statements about a COVID variant immune to the vaccine puts the current national protocol in question. These alarmist reports with major gaps in information leave readers scrambling for truth. At best, such mishigash leads the public to not trust our leaders nor our press, and at worst leaves room for people to draw false conclusions. Either way, there is no basis for making an informed decision on vaccines when unfounded announcements are being spread by the press.

Yet, the public depends on the press for information. "Israeli news websites are still the prime source of information, with 76% saying they get news from such outlets," reported the Times of Israel on 27 January. "63% said they find it hard to tell the difference between fake and real news, with 48% saying they are uncertain even after checking the information."

Several more alarming quotes from the Prime Minister in the same ridiculously titled “virus strain resistant to current vaccines” article were not repeatable without context, and the editors should have prevented their publication as stand-alone statements. While stressing that he’s not an expert on vaccines, the prime minister said he believed “it’s just a matter of time until we hit a strain that the current vaccines are not susceptible to.” Netanyahu said that due to mutations, “we’ll have to inoculate ourselves at least annually, that’s my guess.” Like the flu.

Any declaration that, “I am not a scientist but… that’s my guess,” is not fit to print on its own - not without then providing evidence, or minimally, analysis. The Times of Israel is causing harm to the Israeli public with shoddy reporting. Times of Israel published additional articles hours later, including the same quotes and expounding on the COVID situation but still without data. There was a pause after this article, before the idea of a third booster addressing evolving mutations reached the press, and even coming from Pfizer and Moderna the concept is relayed in its premature stages.

It’s not just Times of Israel. I have been dismayed at regular bad reporting on other English news sites, and then I unfortunately traced these mishaps to the Hebrew news. The problem with the Israeli press is not just impacting Israeli lives. Unethical journalism in Israel damages our relationships with other countries.

Israeli press threatens international diplomatic relations

Did you catch that Israel had to apologize to the United Arab Emirates over an offensive joke made by Israel Health Ministry head of Public Health division Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis? We see her picture and quotes all over the news because of COVID. But on 27 January, Channel 13 should have never reported an offhanded, erroneous remark that she did not offer to the press in the first place. The completely avoidable crisis was created by bad journalism - not just of Channel 13 but by every publication that quoted the offense, or made it into a headline.

“In two weeks of peace, more people died than in 70 years of war,” Alroy-Preis misspoke at a meeting with hospital directors. The asinine quote got picked up by the rest of the Israel news industry. When I read this publicized remark in the bottom of an important COVID update article in the English news, I discounted the entire article as trash. Come to find a day later, the headlines showed that Israel had to apologize for this.

27 January 2021 Headlines:

28 January 2021 Headlines:

Journalists should have had the intellect to recognize that the sarcastic, ignorant remark uttered at the meeting had nothing to do with health nor with reality, and was not fit for repeating. Instead, they made headlines of it, sensationalizing the horrendous statement, and became complicit.

In participating in this poor journalistic culture that dominates the Israeli press, in this case the writers and editors not only harmed the Israeli public but Israel’s new relationship with the UAE.

Adding insult to injury, YNetNews posted an opinion piece on 1 February, applying the offensive term “Dubai Syndrome“ in the title of a rant about Israeli’s mismanagement and noncompliance with COVID lockdowns that the UAE was barely a part of.

Israeli press violates public health

The public relies on the press for accuracy and even as a watchdog, but those mechanisms are nonexistent at this crucial time in Israel. Let’s look inside again. How can the public make decisions about social distancing and vaccines with unreliable reporting as the norm?

It is surprising that last week Israel did not have to also apologize to the World Health Organization. “The WHO is just one of the many organizations that issue recommendations, and not among the most important ones,” the Jerusalem Post quoted two doctors on 27 January. This statement led in to an article where the doctors opposed the WHO recommendation to not vaccinate pregnant women for COVID due to no history of human trials on pregnant women.

Based on no scientific data, the press promotes medical professionals pushing vaccinations for pregnant women

JPost ran an entire article without providing any research data or medical explanation in which doctors Yariv Yogev, director of the obstetrics and gynecology department at Sourasky Medical Center’s Ichilov Hospital, and Yoav Yinon, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer insisted, “the immunization cannot cross the placenta and cannot cause any DNA mutation, miscarriage or any other problems.”

"The risk of contracting the virus decisively outweighs other considerations." What other considerations? Without qualifying this statement, it reads as propaganda. I wish I could believe this article but sadly there is nothing to hold on to. As a reader, I would like to know how the doctors determined that the vaccine does not cross the placenta, and what the long-term effects to look out for would be, for mother and baby.

The article continues: at Sheba they are already conducting a study on more than 340 women who got vaccinated. “We are following them, and I think that in a few months we will have very clear data.” Based on the decisive recommendations of these medical experts, why does it matter?

The result? The WHO caved and followed Israel’s lead, parroting the doctors as the Israeli news article had presented them. JPost reported on 30 January that the WHO had reversed its recommendation saying, “Based on what we know about this kind of vaccine, we don’t have any specific reason to believe there will be specific risks that would outweigh the benefits of vaccination for pregnant women.” No scientific data was provided.

Erroneous representation of the increase in children with COVID

A 1 February report in JPost included statements from the Pediatric Society concerning the health and wellness of the children, advocating that they want to start bringing the elementary lower grades back to in-person school. Good! But JPost included the society’s rationale which made no sense and was untrue. “The [Pediatric Society] society wrote that infection rates are higher in older children and that the vast majority of young children who become infected have few or no symptoms,” JPost erroneously reported without a fact check or real stats.

Then I found contradicting information in a JPost 26 January article from one week earlier. “Instead of around 29% of new cases coming from children and teens, as in the second wave, now they are around 40% of cases, Public Health Services head Sharon Alroy-Preis said in the Knesset on Monday. The greatest spike was in children between the ages of six and nine, she said.”

Omission of data in news reports coupled with contradictory messages

On 31 January, an exciting article in YNetNews quoted Weizmann Institute Professor Elan Segal, "In cities where we saw a high vaccination turnout for people over 60, there is a 50% drop in confirmed cases, a 40% decrease in hospitalizations and 15% less serious patients." Reading the message I was full of hope, until I noticed that the article listed the cities with the highest vaccination rates but omitted the data that led to these percentages. Nothing to go on. Where could I turn to find the data to back up the claims?

I turned to the Wildnews Whatapp group admin Yehoshua Wildman, 11th grader from Beit Shemesh. Wildman posts daily breaking news updates in English about COVID-19 in Israel, especially for those of us who cannot easily access the news in Hebrew. Unlike the press, this independent operation is consistent and reliable. In response to my inquiry, Wildman sent me links to relevant charts from Professor Segal’s twitter feed, and wow it was such a relief. How could it be that a news site would post conclusions without data? The data is accessible, if it exists and is fit to print.

Still, in the breaking news article Segal offered a disclaimer when he says that we have to give more time to, “make sure the downward trend continues.” The data is preliminary, not conclusive. The Israel news sites seized on this bit of knowledge sans disclaimer, with article after article touting the vaccine benefits being discovered in Israel. Then like feathers from a pillow scattering in the wind, the news spiraled out into the global press which was clearly confused by the lack of data offered. On 5 February we finally found an article from outside of Israel which dared to present the information in its nuance on nature.com, contextualizing the findings with analysis by several other Israeli scientists:

But the researchers could not quantify the size of the impact, says Dvir Aran, a biomedical data scientist at Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. Nor have they been able to calculate the real-world effectiveness of the vaccine, because they did not have data on cases and hospitalizations of vaccinated individuals specifically, he says. Still, that the team was able to “extract information from messy real-world data” to show that vaccines are working is impressive, says Aran.

But teasing out whether vaccines are behind the decline in cases — or whether the trend is being driven by changes in people’s behaviour — is very difficult, says Ran Balicer, an epidemiologist at Israel’s largest health-care provider, Clalit Health Services, in Tel Aviv. For example, people who choose to get vaccinated first could also be those who are more cautious.

Segal’s disclaimer reminded me of the early reports in Israel about the efficacy of the vaccine, beginning 24 January. The excitement at the lower infection and lighter symptom rates was tempered in the Times of Israel article with a caution from Sheba Medical Center Professor Galia Rahav. “However, she cautioned that some of the drop may be due to a tendency of newly vaccinated people to adhere to lockdown rules, which causes a drop in infection and hospitalization.”

Erroneous, inconclusive and premature reporting leads to distrust in any discerning reader. The article continues, “Maccabi’s graph gives a real picture of infection in Israel, showing that until Day 13, vaccinated over-60s had similar infection rates as the overall 60-plus population. Then, a gap opens, and by Day 23, there were 18 daily infections among the 50,777 overall, but just six among the vaccinated.” There is no Maccabi graph shown, nor a link, though I am told it is posted on the Maccabi website. Why would the press exclude critical explanatory data from the article? All arrows point to journalistic negligence, or lack of transparency, or both.

It is worth mentioning that on 26 January Haaretz quoted Rahav’s Kan public radio interview where she described numbness and tingling, and facial paralysis as potential vaccine side effects. Rahav said, “At first they said these were hysterical women, but apparently not, because we're seeing the effects in men as well.” The quote proved the article was trash to be discarded, along with the false claim that these side effects being discovered in Israel were unknown to Pfizer, when in fact a 10 December 2020 FDA document noted four such cases in a vaccine trial. The misstatement led to a slew of previously unnecessary articles across Israel news sources clarifying that Pfizer was aware of the rare side effects.

Many unreliable and incomplete news reports across the Israeli press are followed up by more expansive coverage in the subsequent hours or days, sometimes also inconclusive and most times presenting as a cover up for bad journalistic integrity. The pattern leads readers back into the predicament of distrust, having no dependable information for making informed decisions about their health options. The ambiguity in initial reports leaves too much room for the evolution of conspiracies which are rampant.

On the most basic level, the simple errors not caught by editors are a constant reminder that these news outlets are not to be trusted. Haaretz published a title and announcement last Wednesday, 3 February declaring, “Health Ministry: Vaccines will be available to all age groups starting Thursday. The Health Ministry told Israeli health care providers to prepare to expand the vaccination campaign on Thursday, to include Israelis of all age groups.” If you click the link from the announcement to see the full report, it informs you that the expansion Thursday includes Israelis ages 16 and up. Similarly, Jerusalem Post’s main Coronavirus page has a static introductory paragraph that concludes, “To help maintain the virus, Israel has implemented a number of restrictions on the public.”

Words matter. What is reported matters. In his 27 January appearance at the World Economic Forum, Netanyahu described his no-quibble negotiations with Pfizer as leading to the establishment of Israel as the “global test case” for the vaccines, with Israel’s digitized health care system making us an ideal “world laboratory.”

How sad that the Israeli press is not doing its job, ensuring accuracy and transparency wherever possible, even amidst uncertainty. If this is our moment to be the light while the rest of the world is looking to Israel, if not for ourselves then for the rest of the world, we must hold our press to ethical standards.

Naama Rue is a Social Strategist providing communications consulting for small businesses, NGO's and schools, with a background in community organizing for environmental and social change.