‘Thou shall not discriminate’: New rules for Israeli journalists

The Israel Press Council approves a change to ethics rules that forbids journalists and media outlets from discriminating against and excluding certain populations from their coverage. Among those opposing the change: the editor of ‘Israel Hayom’ and the publisher of ‘Haaretz.’

By Oren Persico

Illustrative photo of journalists surrounding the subject of a story. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of journalists surrounding the subject of a story. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

The Israel Press Council last month approved a change to the Rules of Journalistic Ethics according to which media outlets should not discriminate against various population segments or exclude them from their coverage. The change, which was put forth by Union of Journalists in Israel chairman Yair Tarchitsky, was approved 14 to 4, with one abstention. Among those who opposed the measure were representatives of Israeli newspaper publishers — Aharon Lapidot of Israel Hayom and Amos Shoken of Haaretz.

Tarchitsky began pushing for the change at the beginning of 2016, and came in response to media-initiated public opinion polls that sampled only the Jewish population of Israel — a problem that has been covered here by The Seventh Eye — and the ongoing exclusion of news coverage concerning the Arab population of Israel, a phenomenon exposed and documented in recent months by the “Representation Index,” a project of Sikkuy, the Berl Katznelson Foundation, The Seventh Eye, and Yifat Media Research.

After a number of meetings and debates on the proposed change to the ethics rules, the matter was finally brought for a vote late last month. The final version adds four words (the Hebrew is shorter) to the Rules of Journalistic Ethics, so that it now reads (emphasis added):

A newspaper and a journalist shall not publish any matter which contains incitement or encouragement of racism or unlawful discrimination nor shall it exclude and/or discriminate on the basis of race, origin, skin colour, ethnic affiliation, nationality, religion, gender, occupation, sexual orientation, illness or physical or mental impairment, political belief or views, and social or economic standing. A newspaper and journalist shall not indicate these characteristics unless they are relevant to the subject of the report.

The difference between the two versions is small but significant. The previous version, that which was in place until now, forbade publications that encouraged racism or unlawful discrimination. The new version forbids media outlets themselves from excluding or discriminating against various population segments.

Along with Tarchitsky, support for the new rule was led by new members of the Press Council — journalists Tal Schneider, Ilil Shahar, Danny Gutweind, and Elad Man (chairman of The Seventh Eye). Among the most prominent people opposing it was Aharon Lapidot, deputy editor of Israel Hayom, a newspaper that regularly publishes public opinion polls that sample only Jews.

Illustrative photo of a man reading an Israeli newspaper at the airport. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a man reading an Israeli newspaper at the airport. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

According to Press Council members who were present for the vote, Lapidot claimed that the company that provides the newspaper with its public opinion polls, New Wave Research, cannot conduct overnight flash polls that include the entire Israeli population, and that it always includes a disclosure about the identity of the sample group. Other people at the meeting responded that Israel Hayom’s disclosures appear only in small text and that the newspaper conducts polls of Jews only also over longer periods of time, and that it is possible to conduct flash polls that include a sample representative also of Israel’s Arab population.

Lapidot told The Seventh Eye, through Israel Hayom’s spokesperson, that he opposed the amendment to the ethics rules “because it’s a change for the worse.” His opposition, he added, “is based on practical reasons and not principled ones: [demonstrated] by the fact that I wasn’t alone in opposing it; Haaretz publisher Amos Shoken also opposed it.”

In an interview with The Seventh Eye, Amos Shoken explained that he believes that restrictions like the one added to the ethics rules are not actually matters of ethics and are shouldn’t be dealt with by the Press Council.

“There are laws against discrimination and exclusion,” Shoken said. “The ethics rules are not meant to replace or complement the law; they are supposed to deal with different matters. In this case the change infringes on matters of management. I do not think that it is an ethical problem. Tomorrow, journalist Keren Neubach’s campaign concerning the number of men and women appearing on Haaretz’s opinion section will also be an ethical issue. In my opinion, it doesn’t belong in the ethics rules. Ethics is a journalistic practice, and that practice can be performed by men in an ultra-Orthodox newspaper and still be okay.”

Tarchitsky, on the other hand, believes that “it is the role of journalism to reflect the range of voices in society, and when entire segments [of society] are systematically excluded from the discourse — that can’t be tolerated. It harms groups whose voices aren’t being heard and who are portrayed as the ‘other,’ but it also harms the entire public which deserves to get the broadest and most representative picture of reality. I hope that the message trickles down through the journalists and publishers and brings about a change in coverage. In am convinced that this type of change can strengthen the public’s trust in the media.”

Despite the objections raised, the change to the ethics rules was approved by a commanding majority. Press Council director Moti Rosenblum relayed that the rules will be amended to reflect the change  as soon as the formal amendment process is complete. When that happens, anybody will be able to file a complaint with the Press Council over Israel Hayom’s discriminatory public opinion polls, against the systematic exclusion of the Arab population from coverage in major news programs, or anything that appears to be discrimination by news outlets. If it is determined to be a founded complaint, it will be discussed by a special ethics tribunal, which will decide if the media outlet indeed violated the rules’ new clause.

In practice, media outlets can continue to publish public opinion polls that sample only Jews, or to limit the number of Arab interviewees to 2 percent of all interviews as some do. They will know, however, that the Press Council’s ethics tribunal is likely to rule that they are violating the rules. Such a ruling, however, is declaratory and does not prevent the newspaper from continuing to operate as it sees fit.

This article was first published in Hebrew on The Seventh Eye.