The Contemptible New Way of Covering Tragedies in Israel: The Last WhatsApp

When Yedioth Ahronoth made two desperate messages from a mother to her missing daughter its front page headline following a terror attack, it sunk to a new low. Sadly, others are sure to follow its lead.

The four victims killed in a Jerusalem car-ramming attack on January 8, 2017.

To the criticism poured on Yedioth Ahronoth in recent days, lamenting the end of journalistic ethics, you can add additional scorn over the way the newspaper’s editors work. It’s a method that constitutes serious contempt for the profession.

This particular subgenre is increasingly popular here: the final few hours of an Israeli’s life. Granted, shaping a death as a tear-jerking drama is not an Israeli invention, but it looks like Arnon Mozes’ Yedioth group has recently perfected a new style: “The last WhatsApp.”

The first signs of this subgenre emerged last year. For instance, after an Israeli woman died from altitude sickness in Bolivia, the Ynet website highlighted correspondence with her mother in which she writes that she “feels she’s about to die.”

But the definitive example was offered last Monday, after the truck-ramming attack in Jerusalem. “Shiri, speak to me urgently” and “My everything, speak to me” – two messages taken from the cellphone of the mother of one of the female soldiers who died, plastered in enormous letters across Yedioth Ahronoth’s front page. This was actually the paper’s main headline, one that for once was not written by editors but by a concerned mother during the most tragic moment of her life.

The subheadline briefly explained there had been a terrorist attack, but then continued to emphasize the narrative: “‘Talk to me,’ says mother of Lt. Hajaj to her daughter – and there is no reply.”

"Shira, talk  to me, it's urgent My world, talk to me" - the cover of "Yediot Ahronoth" Day after a car-ramming attack,  January 9, 2017.

This front page is not easy to digest. Any reasonable person will experience an uncomfortable, hard-to-process sensation while reading it. Seen in this light, it’s a huge success for the editors, because this is exactly what they intended: to invoke an extreme emotional response in the reader, without making him feel he’s being manipulated. But, of course, this is blatant manipulation. Its sophistication stems from the suggestion that it’s a seemingly objective fact – actual WhatsApp messages – and not a headline dreamed up by a seasoned editor. But, among other things, editing is the selection of facts from the wealth of available information. The choice is despicable.

It’s despicable because it ignores the convention that mourning is first and foremost a private matter. But what’s coveted today is the closest possible intimacy with a shock, sudden death: the uncertainty, the false hope, the moment of the tragic news. These are moments no one wants to endure, and it’s reasonable to assume they wouldn’t want them splashed over hundreds of thousands of front pages. But the trouble is they have created a huge desire for voyeurism. Technology has made this available, and the cynical media treats it like pure gold that could boost web traffic and sales.

But the undermining of conventions is not the problem here. One should pay attention to the small nuances, those creating that sense of nausea. Bearing in mind that the newspaper reached the reader many hours after the terror attack – during which time they have learned that four soldiers were murdered, and that those soldiers have families who have since been notified – the editors’ insistence on returning us to the mother’s moment of uncertainty is important. It’s based on that overused dramatic trick in which the audience knows something the hero doesn’t – just like in a kitsch Hollywood movie. Or it’s like an experiment in which researchers are hiding something from the reader and then drawing conclusions.

Either way, this is done on the back of the unknown. The reader’s ignorance, lack of knowledge, misunderstanding of the situation, incapability to change it – these are raised in order to give the reader the thrill he expects. That’s acceptable when it’s fiction. But when we’re talking about real people, this manipulation is primarily at their expense, and then at the expense of the reader.

It should be remembered that the media’s moral corruption is not only happening in secret editorial meetings. It is also the distorted and cynical way in which a story is presented to the public. In order to notice this, you don’t need the attorney general or leaks from investigations. Just read the newspaper.