Churnalism – the death of good journalism?

Many Israelis and Diaspora Jews tend to believe the international media is biased against Israel, subjecting it to unrelenting, critical scrutiny no other country gets. Palestinians and Muslims, however, tend to believe it is instead biased against them, calling them ‘terrorists’ when they are fighting for their freedom from Israeli rule, and fuelling the Islamophobia sweeping the world. And the old conspiracy theory that “Jews control the media” still has wide currency, not just in the Middle East, but other places.

A particularly sensitive point in journalism is the headlines given to articles, which shape how most people understand the news, since they generally don’t read all the actual stories, but only scan headlines.

Claims of bias against Israel received fresh impetus on Saturday from a sloppily-worded BBC headline, following an attack in Jerusalem’s Old City by a 19-year-old Palestinian who caused the death of two Israelis. The headline said, “Palestinian shot dead after Jerusalem attack kills two”, thus failing to convey that the person shot dead was not an innocent victim, but the actual attacker who carried out the stabbing and shooting of the Israelis. After being challenged, the BBC admitted “that the headline didn’t accurately reflect the events, nor the details reported in our online story”. They changed it to: “Israelis killed in Old City ‘by Palestinian'”.

One is not surprised when sloppy reporting – or blurring of the line between news and opinion – appears in small, overtly partisan publications which make no pretensions about objectivity. Or when the ‘news’ comes via the cellphones of ‘citizen journalists’ or amateur bloggers pretending to be journalists. A local Palestinian paper in Gaza, for example, saying all Israelis are colonialists, or one published by a settler group in the West Bank saying all Palestinians are terrorists.

But the expectation remains that the big, reputable news organisations like the BBC, Associated Press, Reuters, etc, for whom ‘objectivity’ is their main selling point, still adhere to basic principles of good journalism, such as reporting based on credible sources, rigorous fact-checking, balance, and so on. Their main drawcard is their credibility, and being able to brush aside the deluge of informational garbage flooding cyberspace today, and provide their readers with the real story.

But the Internet has disrupted the modus operandi of the traditional news networks. In the midst of their financial crisis, media outlets have had to slash costs. Many now have smaller, inexperienced staff, and demand of these staff to produce more articles, faster, to keep up with the 24-hour immediacy on which the Internet is based.

The phenomenon has even evoked a term called “churnalism”. In the past, this is what characterised local newspapers and free publications, which relied on a tiny staff who did everything from writing articles and checking spelling to running errands, and whose aim was simply to fill the paper’s pages with local gossip and information.

Media analysts comment that “churnalism” seems to be gradually penetrating the big news organizations. Special correspondents or specialized editors with expertise in particular areas or topics – such as a special Jerusalem bureau chief – have been replaced by a news desk consisting of generalist editors. They are often required to tackle a wide range of topics, and don’t have the experience or expertise their predecessors did.

Last year, after Israel’s much-criticised Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, Israeli-Canadian journalist Matti Friedman, who was Jerusalem correspondent for Associated Press until 2011, published an accusation against his former employer, saying that in his opinion the international media is clearly biased against Israel. In many cases, however, this bias is unwitting and based on ignorance, rather than intentional. The journalist who wrote the headline for the BBC referred to above, was not necessarily anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. He could just as easily have been simply inexperienced and ignorant about the general context of Israel and the Palestinians, and therefore unable to immediately understand the basic elements of the story.

Sadly, with all the bloggers and amateur ‘reporters’ pretending to be journalists today, a culture of dilettantism has taken over the media, in which a supposed journalist, cellphone in hand, can simply parachute in – metaphorically – and write the story and the headline, without the hard, careful work that underlies true, good journalism.

(First published in SA Jewish Report, October 9, 2015)

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