Monday, November 28th | 4 Kislev 5783

September 30, 2022 11:23 am

A New Year’s Resolution for Stopping Anti-Israel News

avatar by Benjamin Amram


A general view shows the plaza of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, amid the coronavirus pandemic, May 6, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun.

The Ten Days of Repentance — which culminate in Yom Kippur — is a time for reflection and introspection. How we can improve as individuals and as a community?

It seems like the media have their work cut out for them.

According to the 2022 Reuters Institute Digital News report, trust in news agencies has reached a seven-year low among Americans, steadily declining since 2017. Currently, it stands at only 26%. Another study published by The Washington Post found that, among US adults surveyed, only 16 and 11 percent have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers and TV news, respectively.

The then-UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, illuminated the challenges facing the media in a speech at the Human Rights Council some three months ago:

We need to look at how best to contain the harms caused by disinformation, while addressing the underlying causes that give disinformation life and allow it to gain traction.

For its part, the prestigious Pew Research Center recently stated that the major causes of declining trust in the media are the shift to digital ad revenue, polarized news sources among Democrats and Republicans, and misinformation.

Interestingly, while readers distrust news sources, they do trust organizations that align with their own opinions. As Olivier Knox from The Washington Post claimed: “It seems people loathe Congress but are fine with their own representative. It seems plausible that people trust where they get their news, but not where people they disagree with get theirs.”

These biases, which affect journalists as well as their audiences, can possibly be attributed to certain psychological shortcuts. Readers are more likely to read and remember information congruent with previously held beliefs, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) argues.

The NIH highlighted two biases that seemingly contribute to the deteriorating trust: confirmation bias and selective exposure bias:

Confirmation bias: “Individuals may… actively seek out and assign more weight or validity to information that supports their current attitude.”

Selective exposure bias: “Phenomenon whereby people choose to focus on information in their environment that is congruent with and confirms their current attitudes in order to avoid or reduce cognitive dissonance.”

For readers, this translates to reading and remembering information they knew before — while disbelieving people who hold counter information from opposing viewpoints.

The selective exposure bias furthermore affects the ability of journalists to report impartially. Subconsciously, the brain compares previous memories and knowledge with incoming information. This would mean that — either deliberately or mistakenly — reporters struggle to be perfectly impartial. HonestReporting has this year highlighted many journalists who have purposely skewed facts and neglected crucial context, including at the BBC, The New York Times, Al Jazeera, and others.

The major challenge is the speed at which misinformation can spread. An MIT study of Twitter data found that fake news spreads six times quicker than factual news. A possible explanation is that false news is “novel” and shocking, causing stronger emotional reactions.

Soroush Vosoughi, a postdoc student and member of the research team at MIT, suggested that the “misinformation challenge” has two angles: people who deliberately spread fake news and people who unknowingly spread it. Political information was the largest cluster of misinformation among the 126,000 samples of false news published on Twitter.

All in all, this can contribute to polarization and a lack of trust in the media.

Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychology professor, mentions that misinformation is also caused by “human negative biases.” This refers to the brain’s tendency to perceive threats over positive information, which causes journalists to over-report shocking and tragic events while under-reporting positive events.

As the professor explains:

Bad things are sudden and newsworthy (a shooting rampage, a war, an epidemic), while good things are gradual and boring (a crime decline, a spreading peace, a longevity rise). The culture of journalists amplifies the negativity by dismissing positive developments as human-interest fluff, corporate PR or government propaganda.

To prevent the spread of fake news and counter negative biases, he suggests journalists should give context to negative information by providing the long-term trends related to current incidents, as these trends tend to show improvement rather than things getting worse.

By not posting fake news on social media, readers can contribute to the improvement of ethical journalism, which should uphold values of impartiality, truth, and transparency.

Yet attempting to regain the public’s trust in the media requires that journalists make a serious effort to put an end to misinformation and biased reporting.

First of all, news agencies bear a responsibility to hire only qualified journalists who do not have a history of antisemitism, anti-Israel bias, or connections to controversial pro-Palestinian groups. It is important to check the credentials, past stories, and resources used by reporters to validate their ability to report impartially.

To stop the spread of misinformation and biased reporting, journalists could moreover use the American Press Institute guidelines:

  • Periodically examine yourself for bias building up — understanding what your views are and why you have them is the best way to keep them under control.
  • Who do you personally like or dislike? Why?
  • How might that be coloring your judgment?
  • Read through some of your stories and be self-critical.
  • Do any of them help you tell the story?
  • Are there any you believe you should not deal with?
  • Is there anything you should do in presenting any of these biases that will help the reader understand them?
  • What bias do I have going in that I should be wary of?
  • What are my points of ignorance going in that I need to note?

The spread of misinformation begins with reporters, but is exacerbated by the public, in particular by social media users. The public can contribute to the media’s improvement by following the steps listed by Simon Fraser University

The most important steps are to thoroughly check the source, read beyond the headlines (do not share an article without reading the contents), investigate the authors, and check the resources they used.

Rosh Hashanah and the days leading up to Yom Kippur are a time to reflect on the past year. What mistakes have we made? Where can we improve? How do we move toward a better version of ourselves? Journalists and readers each play an important role in the spread of misinformation and biased reporting.

Awareness is the first step towards reinstating the values of ethical journalism that could eventually enable the public to trust the media more. News media outlets, journalists, and consumers each have to do their part.

Together, we can move toward a successful year.

The author is a contributor to HonestReporting, a Jerusalem-based media watchdog with a focus on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias — where a version of this article first appeared.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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