The recent apologies and retractions concerning a false story that originated in the Hebrew press of a Jerusalem rabbinical court sentencing a dog to be stoned to death has prompted me to write this open letter. I write to you as an Israeli citizen who sees how Israel is portrayed in an international context. I see how my country is demonized and increasingly questioned as a legitimate entity. I write to you out of concern that Israeli media is inadvertantly contributing to this campaign of hatred and delegitimization.
Israel is blessed with a free and vibrant media. It holds the state, politicians, public figures and institutions to account, performing a vital function in the public interest. The Israeli media is often highly critical of the government of the day and shines a spotlight into dark corners that deserve to be exposed. Israeli society is incredibly self-critical and the Israeli press is a reflection of this.
But it is not only the Israeli public that reads your content every day. With the proliferation of English-language print editions and websites, news stories and opinion pieces now have the potential to reach a vast global audience. Most websites now have a vastly greater readership than printed material.
The foreign press takes the majority of its stories and ideas straight from the pages of the domestic media. Stories that add to the rich plethora of opinion and critique within Israel, however, often take on an entirely different context when presented to a foreign audience.
Genuine criticism is twisted into demonization. Our own children serving in the IDF become “war criminals”. Israeli actions and policies are portrayed as inherently evil.
With the power of your words comes great responsibility. This is especially true when you make a journalistic error. The recent story of the dog was published in a number of Israeli papers before it was proven to be false. The story was republished by a number of foreign media outlets including AFP, Time, the Daily Telegraph and the BBC.
A brief look at the talkbacks and comments below those articles, spewing hatred of Jews and Israel, offers a disturbing insight into the damage that such a story can do on a global scale.
In the past, Israeli newspapers have published second-hand testimonies from IDF soldiers talking about their experiences, some of which cast the IDF in a negative light. Most of you have served in the IDF prior to starting your journalism careers. Like all Israelis, you know someone serving in the army – friends, family, even your own children. While you understand the values and nature of our citizen army, the foreign press does not. Second-hand accounts become third-hand; isolated or individual and unverified stories become attributed to the IDF at-large and its soldiers.
Israeli editors and journalists – I am not asking you to exercise self-censorship nor to avoid covering the difficult stories. What I am asking is that you recognize that you have a global audience. Think about the impact that your stories will have not only on a domestic readership but also beyond Israel. Remember – it isn’t only Israelis who rely on you for high standards of journalism – the State of Israel itself depends on it.
Simon Plosker, Managing Editor, HonestReporting