Israel’s Jewish and Arab communities are by and large segregated from one another, and each knows precious little about the lives of the other. One of the only points of interaction between the two main Israeli ethnic groups is the media. But mainstream Hebrew news is very short on Arab interviewees, says a team of Israeli organizations trying to mend the situation.
While Arabs are nearly a fifth of Israel’s population, they comprise a mere 2-3 percent of interviewees in mainstream Hebrew media, according to a study by the Israeli organization Sikkuy, which seeks to advance civil equality, and the Seventh Eye, an independent media watchdog.
The study, financed by the New Israel Fund and the Berl Katsenelson Fund, also found that those few Arabs who were interviewed in the news largely appeared in the negative context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, leaving a threatening impression on Jewish viewers, the report’s authors maintain.
In response, Sikkuy and the Seventh Eye began a campaign to bring a more positive image of Arabs to Jewish Israeli media consumers, both by making Arabs more easily accessible to journalists and by shaming those who continue to downplay the community in their coverage.
“Arabs and Jews usually don’t meet in regular everyday life. Mainstream media is a major point of contact between the two groups, and therefore, it is an important point of change,” Edan Ring, the director of Public Affairs for Sikkuy and a leader of the initiative, argued during a roundtable discussion on June 6.
One powerful tool developed by the campaign for correcting the underrepresentation of Arabs in Hebrew media is the “A-List” website. Launched in late May, the site offers a sleek, easy-to-use database of around 100 Arab experts and interviewees in Israel who can speak with authority on subjects like environment, medicine, law, technology, high-tech and more.
The new database, which was put together by the Israeli civil society organization Anu, devotes a well-organized page to each expert, providing all the relevant information an editor, journalist or producer may want to know such as publications and previous media interviews, details about their fields of expertise, where they live, work and how to contact them.
The A-List, according to Ring, eliminates the excuse that Arab experts are not interviewed because they are difficult to access for Hebrew speakers or because there is a dearth of them.
The campaign, however, did not begin with the A-List. Since March, Sikkuy, with the help of the Seventh Eye, has been publishing monthly statistics on how many Arab experts were interviewed in Israel’s most important print, TV and radio media outlets.
With the help of those statistics, according to Ring, both Sikkuy and the Seventh Eye began using a carrot-and-stick campaign, using their respective media strength to publicly shame news outlets who had a small percentage of Arab interviewees or praise those who scored well.
The campaign has seen incremental improvement, albeit slight, over the past few months. In February, among the 19 leading media programs, only 3% of interviewees were Arab. In March, after the monthly publication of the “Arab representation index” began, the number rose to about 3.5%, in April it rose to 3.7% and in May to 3.8%.
What about Jews in Arab media?
Asked if a reciprocal program was being conducted to increase representation of Jews in Arabic media, the director of the A-list project, Makbula Nassar, responded that such an initiative was not a priority because Arabs in Israel — who are largely fluent in Hebrew while most Jews do not know Arabic — generally read the Hebrew media.
Nassar, who is also a leading journalist at the Israeli Arabic language As-Shams radio station, said her organization makes sure that 20% of their interviewees each month are Jews.
Nassar also said she’d received a “99% positive reaction” from the Arab experts she solicited for the A-List database.