Analysis

Don't Be a Silent Partner in the Next Corruption Affair: How to Be a Smart News Consumer

Long gone are the days when media reports were seen as absolute truth ■ Scandals such as Case 4000, for which police recommended indicting the prime minister and his wife, show how careful and informed we have to be when we read the news

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures while delivering a speech before lighting candles during the start of Hanukkah, December 2, 2018.
AFP

Scandals such as Case 4000, which reflect a number of ills in the dark corners of the media scene – and not just in Israel – always require three types of players: Corrupt people who give and take bribes; those who quietly or, in the case of journalists, less quietly, cooperate; and finally, members of the public (readers, listeners and viewers) who are not sufficiently familiar with the interests behind the scenes.

The days when what the media reports is seen as the absolute truth are long gone. We know that journalism is a business with funders, either private or public, and that coverage is shaped by human beings. And human beings have interests, along with a personal identity and a worldview. Facts are facts, but from the moment they are expressed in words, they reflect a particular narrative and power struggle, either open or covert.

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Smart news consumers of our generation – veterans of Case 2000 and Case 4000 and all the other cases involving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – have to develop a healthy critical sense regarding the huge flood of information that they are exposed to 24/7 from thousands of sources simultaneously.

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Who is the source of the story, where is it being reported, who stands to gain from the report and what isn't being reported? Who is being interviewed on a regular basis and who, not at all? These are only some of the critical questions that must be asked in order to analyze the information that forms the basis for our understanding of our daily lives.

Police recommendations in Case 4000

The answer isn't always scandalous. Far from it. There is a vast difference between bribery, sponsored media content, the interests that sources have, their relationships with reporters, an absence of data and quotes, editorial automation and social templates or agendas.

We must not become confused: Having a political agenda, on whatever side of the political spectrum, is not the same as bribery. And not only in the political party context; economics is also a political issue, as is well known, as are social welfare, gender and the environment. Everything's political.

Heightened public awareness on every front is necessary to understand these interests, but that doesn't mean that they are inappropriate. The public must also learn to make the distinctions.

Sometimes the answers to some questions are closely tied to the structure of ownership. But do most members of the public actually know who has controlling interests in the major media outlets from which they get their information and what business interests those people might also have? Has enough been done to make this information accessible?

Sometimes the answer appears in the form of the person's headshot right in the middle of the article, or in the case of the Walla news website at the heart of Case 4000, in dozens of heartwarming pictures of the prime minister's wife.

It's important to understand the significance of how the news is presented and not just the words conveyed, but sometimes it is difficult or even impossible to decipher the precise interests involved. But they're there.

Take, for example, Israel's various government authorities, a collection of neutral entities representing the public. But do they?

Doesn’t the Finance Ministry have its own interests vis-à-vis other ministries that supposedly represent the public interest? What about the Defense Ministry? And the military spokesperson's office? What are they attempting to obtain when they provide, or withhold, information? Sometimes reporters use the same sources over and over. Have they perhaps developed a give-and-take relationship?

We also need to pay attention to where a news item appears and how prominent it is. We need to think about why it is one way and not another. In the digital era, it is not only location that is important, but also its shelf life.

Ultimately, you need to develop a position of your own on a given subject. You need to view a news report as a point of departure for further consideration and independent action. As noted earlier, not all interests are equal before the law or moral standards, but developing the ability to read the news critically requires having our eyes wide open.

As a result of all of this, the less silent partners in this scandal – journalists – are guilty not only in the clear instances in which they surrendered to pressure from their bosses. We are also guilty of frequently forgetting that we are public servants rather than simply serving bosses and sources.  

We need to make it easier for the public to understand exactly where we obtained our information, if that's possible without compromising sources, and what the various interests at play are, as well as what the other side has to say and why. Information doesn't just fall from the sky. It comes from official statements, from officials involved in an issue, from spokespeople and those associated with those involved.

And, yes, it also comes directly from the Prime Minister's Residence, as allegedly was the situation in the Walla case. Critical protection of sources is designed to protect whistleblowers and people who in leaking information endanger themselves. It's not about pictures that the Netanyahu family's PR adviser Nir Hefetz may have sent.

Finally, it may be a cliché, and I know that I have a personal interest in saying this, but I am practicing here what I preach, and I believe this with all my heart: Support journalism that you value. Watch, listen, click, purchase a subscription. Comment, share and write to the editor. In any manner that you choose.

The financial crisis in which our industry has found itself in recent years has not only opened a window but an entire wall through which corruption can move in. And then there is another analytical tool to consider: If I am not paying for the news that I consume, who is and what is their motivation?