Israeli journalists take photos on the Gaza Strip-Israel border during a Palestinian demonstration last October. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

Israeli & American Publics In Sync On Media (Dis)Trust

More than half of both populations have lost faith in journalistic practices

Thirty-one percent of Israelis “have some or great trust” in the media, according to a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), a modest increase over the 28% in 2017 and up from 24% percent the year before but still well below past levels. Notably, 58% of respondents described the media as “corrupt” in the annual survey, first conducted in 2002 and which surveyed 1,041 people over the age of 18.

While overall trust in the media has rebounded from an all-time low in 2016, the level remains far below that of 2011 when more than half of the Israeli population (52%) expressed faith in journalistic practices. The IDI’s Tamar Hermann, a member of the team that authored the poll’s results, attributes this degradation to a general shift in the perception of the media’s purpose; that is, from an institution meant to convey facts and act as the cornerstone of free societies to “promoting a particular worldview rather than just reporting.”

Dr. Noam Lemelshtrich Latar, Founding Dean of the Sammy Ofer School of Communications at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, agrees that this erosion of public trust is largely due to the media’s partisanship. “Professional journalism is supposed to be objective and give you a clear picture of reality,” he explained to The Media Line, “but most media [outlets] in Israel are actually owned by private people [to] serve their interests so it’s not a surprise that the results are so low.”

[Hear Felice Friedson with Dr. Lemelstrich Latar:]

The same holds true with respect to individual “gatekeepers,” with Lemelshtrich Latar arguing that journalists do not bother to hide their biases and thus, in the eyes of the public, fall short of ethical standards.

“Most journalists in Israel have a political agenda,” he noted, qualifying that this may, somewhat counter-intuitively, “bring back a little bit of trust moving forward as we now know that there are very, very few professionals that really practice [impartial] investigative journalism.”

In the United States, surveys show a similar uptick in trust in the press although levels there too remain far below historical highs. According to a recent Gallup poll, 45% of Americans believe the media reports “fully, accurately and fairly,” up from an all-time low of 32% just two years ago. In the mid-1990s and early 2000s, more than half of the populace expressed a similar faith. This peaked during the mid-1970s when more than two-thirds of U.S. citizens held the media in high esteem (in 1976, 72% of Americans professed a “great deal or fair amount” of trust in the news industry).

Dr. Tehilla Altshuler, a Senior Fellow at the IDI, contended to The Media Line that modern-day suspicion of the media is in part owing to the emergence of different news-related platforms. “The general public believed social media would give us a better worldview, that it would be more open and pluralistic and not have the same biases as traditional media. But now they are disillusioned, realizing that social media is not this objective.”

This is reinforced by the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, which found that global confidence in traditional journalism has improved since 2015 (to 59%), whereas faith in social media has declined to 51% over the same time frame. Three years ago, the results were essentially inversed.

At the micro level, those identifying as “conservative” are generally more disdainful of news companies, with only 15.5% of Israelis that vote for right-wing parties expressing trust in the media; this, compared to 47% of those in the “center” and 62.5% on the “left” (the latter figure has nearly doubled from 34.5% in 2016). In the U.S., a mere 21% of Republicans hold positive views of the press versus 76% of Democrats.

“For many years, people thought the Israeli press communicated only left-leaning views,” the IDI’s Hermann told The Media Line. “This is not the case now with the establishment of right-wing news outlets but this assessment is still sometimes attributed to all media.”

For her part, Altshuler maintains that this ideological discrepancy may have little to do with journalistic performance. “I don’t see how the major increase among left-wing voters is connected to real trust in the media. They don’t approve of the media but instead are expressing frustration with those who attack it.”

In this respect, Professor Gadi Wolfsfeld, an Israeli expert in political communications, cautions against being overly optimistic about the apparent trend evidenced by the IDI’s study.

“A 3% increase, depending on the sample size and [a variety of other factors], could be within the margin of error.” He further told The Media Line that the lumping together of all types of mediums “makes it even more problematic because young people get their information from social media and often look for news items that strengthen their own positions.”

(Tara Kavaler is an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)

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