One would think that the harshest critics of the Israeli media regarding the lack of professionalism and problematic ethical conduct, will find many supporters for their views from within the ranks of the journalists themselves. This arises from the findings of the comprehensive, biannual survey of Israeli journalists undertaken for the second time by the Seventh Eye journal, under the aegis of the Israel Democracy Institute. According to the survey findings, most of the journalists have encountered—at least with some frequency—cases of distortion of quotes by journalists, submitting to the influence of commercial considerations on news content, and unfair coverage as a result of bargaining between journalists and their sources. Almost seven out of every ten journalists think that the media structures do not adequately apply the same rules of ethics and integrity that they demand from the subjects of their stories, and about half of the journalists report on heavy pressure on them to supply the goods, regardless of the ethical cost.
Even on the more practical level, the study findings indicate a severe crisis in the journalists' feelings of security and stability; feelings that could affect their ability to carry out their work in a professional manner. Almost a third of the journalists feel that they are not making an honorable living from their profession; about a quarter of them do not report a feeling of job security. Four out of every ten journalists maintain that they are exposed to harassment or hostility from the public; and what is most surprising—almost 40% of those questioned cited that, as journalists in Israel in the 21st century, they sometimes feel that they are in actual physical danger.
As stated, this is the second time that a survey among journalists was carried out by the Seventh Eye (the results of the first survey, carried out at the end of 2002, were published [in Hebrew] in the March 2003 journal). The present study was carried out on a sample of 200 journalists who hold various positions in the national and local media in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, and English. The sampling method was identical to that used in the first survey, so that the findings of the surveys could be compared. The sample included journalists employed by the printed press, radio, television, and internet. The focus of the sample was on journalists working in the news and current events areas (including reporters and news desk editors, journalists of supplements that deal with news-related subjects, economic reporters and editors, etc.), and not on "niche" reporters who do not deal with current news events, such as sports sections, consumerism, entertainment, etc. As in the 2002 survey, the representation by senior editors, reporters, and analysts was again assured, as were media that reach out to specific populations (Arabs, religious, new immigrants, etc.).
The survey was undertaken by telephone interviews carried out by the Dahaf Agency, headed by Dr. Mina Tzemach. The sampling base from the previous survey was updated and rebuilt, through the integration and cross-referencing of existing databases of journalists, credits from news reports and newspapers, and in some cases lists sent in from the media staffs themselves. Besides the 200 journalists who did participate in the survey, 29 journalists refused to participate, and in 42 cases, the survey agency did not succeed in establishing contact with the interviewees. The final percentage of response was, therefore, 73.8%. This rate of participation was significantly higher than that of the previous survey (54%).
Journalistic Ethics and Practice
The most troubling finding coming out of the survey is the high frequency in the use of ethically problematic practices by the news staffs, according to the journalists' own reporting. The journalists were asked to note with what frequency they encountered such practices in their work. It is important to note, with some reservation, that the responses to these questions represent the perceptions of the journalists as to the frequency of the described practices, and not necessarily their actual frequency.
The most prevalent problem, according to respondents, is the distortion of quotes by journalists. Almost 30% of those asked frequently encountered a distortion of quotes from interviewees. An additional 23.2% encountered distortions sometimes, and only 17.2% of respondents never encountered a distortion of quotes by journalists. An unfair report, resulting from negotiations between journalists and their sources, is a prevailing phenomenon: 30.2% of respondents reported that they encountered it frequently, 17.65% only sometimes, and only 21% of the respondents never encountered this phenomenon. No less troublesome is the fact that only 27.6% of the respondents reported that they never encountered a situation in which news content was influenced by commercial considerations, and only 18% never encountered censorship transgressions and breaches of publication restraining orders.
Even though 37.9% of the respondents, in their own words, never encountered serious ethical breaches, 58.5% of the respondents reported that they encountered them at some frequency, among them 8.5% who encountered them frequently. A complete fabrication of interviews or items was a relatively rare occurrence: about 40% of respondents reported that they never encountered this occurrence, and an additional 35% only rarely. Nonetheless, this figure as well—and even more so the fact that close to a quarter of the respondents reported that they encounter a fabrication of items or interviewees sometimes or frequently—is enough to arouse concern.
The rarest problematic occurrence, according to the journalists' reporting, was wire-tapping, but even here the numbers are not encouraging. A significant majority of interviewees (63.5%) did in fact report that they were never exposed to wire-tapping, but close to a quarter of the respondents reported that they had encountered this occurrence at some frequency.
Despite the admission of the existence of ethically problematic phenomena in the media, a majority of the respondents (68.7%, at various levels of agreement) agreed with the statement, "The media organizations in which I work are run properly," compared with 16.7% who did not agree with it. The statement, "There is transparency in the media organizations in which I work" also received similar levels of agreement, though slightly lower (63.2% agreement). On the other hand, when they were asked to what degree the media organizations themselves sufficiently implement all the codes of honesty and integrity that they demand of the people they are reporting on, only 27% of the respondents answered that the media implement these rules to the extent demanded (an additional 4% answered that the media implement them even beyond what is demanded). 61% of the respondents answered that the media implement the codes of honesty and integrity to a certain degree but less than required, and 8% answered that the media structures do not apply these codes at all.
In general, young journalists and journalists working in the local media tended to report less that they encountered ethically problematic occurrences. Local journalists also tended more than their colleagues in the national media to think that the media implements the ethical code for itself than it demands from those being reported about.
Professional Working Environment
The findings causing the most concern in regard to the journalists' professional working environment were the feelings of pressure and threat from different bodies. Half of the respondents reported on pressures at work and agreed with the statement: "As a journalist, I feel pressure to live up to what is expected of me at any price." Only 37.6% did not agree with this statement. 41.2% of those asked agreed with the statement: "As a journalist I am exposed to harassment or hostile expressions." Even though the percentage of those who did not agree with this statement was higher (47.7%), there is still a very large number of journalists who feel that they are exposed to hostile expressions or harassment. There was a clear and significant difference between the genders in regard to this question: more than half (51.6%) of the female journalists testified to hostile expressions and harassment directed towards them, and close to a quarter (24.2%) of all female journalists agreed very much with this statement. Among male journalists, only 36.5% reported on the existence of threats and harassment, and only 7.3% agreed very much with the statement.
The very high frequency of threats and harassment represents a significant danger to the ability of journalists to carry out their work professionally and without fear. At times the threats and harassment even lead to situations in which the journalists feel that they are in danger of real injury: 38.7% of the respondents in the survey expressed agreement with the statement: "As a journalist in Israel I sometimes feel that I am in physical danger," and only half the journalists reported that they never felt themselves to be in physical danger.
Surprisingly, perhaps, in light of these data, most of the journalists expressed relatively high satisfaction from their workplace in everything concerning the more immediate working environment. In comparison with the previous survey, the general satisfaction from journalistic work even rose, as did the rate of journalists who reported that they were interested in continuing to work in journalism in the future. Fifty percent of those interviewed responded that they were very satisfied from their work in journalism (compared with 39.7% in 2002), 44.9% responded that they are somewhat satisfied, 3.5% responded that they were not very satisfied by their work (compared with 7.2% in 2002), and only one participant out of 200 respondeded that he was not at all satisfied from his work in journalism (0.5%, compared with 1% in the 2002 survey). The high level of job satisfaction also found expression in the low number of journalists who declared that they are not interested in continuing to work in journalism in the future: 68.3% reported that they are very interested in continuing to work in journalism, 23.6% answered that they are quite interested, 7.3% answered that they are not so interested, and only 3.5% answered that they are not at all interested in continuing to work in journalism (compared with 14.1% "not so interested" and 2.4% "not at all interested" in the previous survey).
In accordance with this response pattern, almost 89% of the interviewees agreed with the statement: "I enjoy coming to work," and about half of those surveyed agreed very much with this statement. 87.5% reported that they felt they were given freedom of action by their editors, 82.3% of the interviewees agreed that they have the tools to cover the areas they are in charge of, and 76.8% reported that there are good personal relations in their work environment. Only a few percent did not agree with these statements.
Although most of those asked expressed agreement with the statements, "I feel secure in my workplace" (61.5%) and "I feel I am making a decent living as a journalist" (53%), a considerable minority of respondents thought otherwise. About a third of those interviewed reported that they do not make a decent living as journalists, and about a quarter reported that they do not feel secure regarding their place of work. Feelings of lack of security at their place of work and reporting on the inability to make a decent living in journalism were higher among those working in the local media, compared with their colleagues in the national media, data that are not surprising in light of the difficult economic situation of many local papers. No statistical connection was found between these feelings and the gender, age, or education of the respondents.
As in the first round of interviews, this time as well, the journalists were asked to rank journalistic values, noting how much they think each of them is important. In general, a high level of stability was found concerning the importance of journalistic values, compared with the 2002 survey, while most of the differences are not statistically significant. This time as well, the overwhelming majority of those questioned agreed that a clarification of facts to confirm their truth is a very important value (99%). A long list of additional values, including guarding against a publisher's interference in content, cross-referencing sources, not publishing rumors, presenting both sides of the story, and getting the story first, were recognized as important by more than 90% of those interviewed. A high level of agreement, although somewhat less (between 80–90%) related to such values as the need to provide an analysis of the news, the maintenance of neutrality, consideration of the areas which interest the public, and maintaining a distance from those being reported about. As in the 2002 survey, this time as well the instruction concerning the need "to avoid the use of the first person," expressing the rhetoric of objectivity according to the classic journalistic model, garnered the least agreement as to its importance.
In an attempt to clarify, through the use of another method, the essential components of the journalists' professional identity and self-conceptualization, the participants were asked to choose from among a list of possible characteristics, the one which in their opinion was the most important in order to become a good journalist. The characteristics cited more than others were curiosity (34.5%), and credibility (32.5%). The dominance of these traits would confirm the centrality of the search for scoops and the importance of affirming the reliability of the information as professional values in the journalists' identity and profession. Other traits cited as most important were proficiency in the work field (12%), diligence (8%), social skills (6%), and writing talent (5%).
The Influence of the Media
An additional set of questions, which did not appear in the 2002 survey, touched on the perception of the journalists about the influence of the media, on the one hand, and the factors that influence the media on the other. The perception of the influence was measured on a scale between 1 (no influence whatsoever) to 5 (very great influence). In general it was found that Israeli journalists think that the influence of the media on politicians is greater than its influence on the public, and that the influence of the media on the public is seen as stronger than its influence on the journalists themselves. Journalists who believed that the media had an influence were asked in addition if they thought that this influence was mainly positive or mainly negative. In relation to the influence on the public, the percentage of respondents who thought that the media influences on the public were mainly positive was similar to the percentage of respondents who thought that the influences were mainly negative (19.5% vs. 18.5%, adjusted; the rest of the respondents answered that the influences were both positive and negative). As to the influence on politicians, 17% responded that they are mainly positive, and 26% that they are mainly negative. As to the influence on the journalists themselves, 28.5% thought that the influence of the media is mainly positive, compared with only 8.5% who thought that the influence was mainly negative.
The respondents tended to think that the public is influenced more than it influences the media. The perceived influence of the public on the media was a bit above average, compared with a relatively high level of influence by the politicians on the media. Most of the respondents (54.5%) thought that the influence of politicians on the media is mainly negative. Only 3.8% thought that the influence of the politicians on the media is positive.
An additional interesting finding points to a significant gap between the influences which the journalists attributed to the media, and the normative tasks that they attribute to the media institutions. The respondents tended to think that the media should, to a great or a very great extent, expose the corruption of public figures, increase vigilance so that politicians fulfill their promises to the public, and promote the guarding of human rights (average marks between 4 to 5, on a scale of 1-5); but in fact the journalists feel that the media fulfill these functions only to a certain degree, or a bit above average. Similarly, the journalists think that one of the desirable influences of the media is to engender a less vociferous political dialogue (an average mark of 3.42, i.e., average and above). But in fact the journalists believed that the media fulfill this function to a small extent (a mark of 2.04). In two additional cases the journalists think that the media fills functions that are not worth filling, or not desirable for it to fill: thus, while they do not believe that the media must cause people to support the government's policies, they feel that in fact the media does have this influence, to a certain extent. The journalists also think that the media instills Zionist values more than they ought to.
Despite the gaps between the desirable and actual functioning of the media, despite the exposure to unethical occurrences they report about, and despite the fact that many of them think that the media influences the politicians and the public negatively and are influenced by them negatively—the respondents still gave the Israeli media a generally high evaluation: 7.6 on a scale of 1-10. This is a significant increase compared to the average grade in the 2002 survey, which stood at only 6.3. This finding joins the other encouraging findings arising from the present research: Israeli journalists are perhaps exposed to unethical norms more frequently than desirable, suffer from harassment, from threats and from lack of economic security, and at times even fear physical injury during their work; but despite all this they are satisfied with their work, intend to continue in it, and feel that the personal relations in the work place are relatively good. They are thus similar, it seems, to the average Israeli: despairing of the economic and security crisis to the point of corruption from both sides, and exploiting every opportunity to complain about "the situation"—and still declaring a high level of satisfaction when asked about it in surveys. As in the 2002 survey, the new survey can be summarized, therefore, with a kind of partial comfort: The Israeli journalists reflect the people they live among.
Dr. Yariv Tsfati is a lecturer in the Communications Department at Haifa University; Oren Livio, a reporter for The Seventh Eye, is an MA student in the Department.
The authors thank Asher Arian and Pazit Ben-Nun for their assistance in formulating the questionnaire and Riva Tokachinsky for her assistance in compiling the sampling of journalists. Special thanks to the journalists who contributed their time and participated as interviewees in the research.
This article was first published on issue 55 of The Seventh Eye. Read it in Hebrew here