The ‘breakthrough’ that metastasized into lazy journalism
Hebrew media review

The ‘breakthrough’ that metastasized into lazy journalism

A Tel Aviv-led study on how skin cancer spreads may well be groundbreaking, but by failing to quote an outside appraisal Israeli papers do their readers a disservice

Illustrative: Cancer cells. (Pixabay)
Illustrative: Cancer cells. (Pixabay)

Journalists are sometimes asked why there is no outlet that writes only good news. The answer to that question – not all news is good (no matter how much you try to make it so) and nobody wants to or should read only good news – is borne out in Israel’s print media landscape Tuesday morning, as a feel-good story about a possible cancer breakthrough is stretched to its very limits of feely-goodness, and even then struggles to compete with sexier bad news about wars and violence.

The story of Tel Aviv University scientists leading research that may unlock a clue to fighting melanoma is on all three front pages, but only leads populist tabloid Yedioth. In both Israel Hayom and Haaretz, stories about tensions with Gaza and (in Haaretz’s case) official discrimination against Arabs take precedence.

But that’s not to say the papers downplay the melanoma story, and if anything just the opposite, with all three dispensing with any actual journalism and doing little more than rehashing the celebratory Tel Aviv University press release. Not a single one bothered to reach out to an independent researchers to get an outside take on how big a breakthrough the study actually is. (For the record, The Times of Israel’s own coverage was much the same, including only quotes from Levy.)

The news, while exciting, is made to seem as if Tel Aviv scientists have pretty much cured melanoma, which not only takes it a bit far, but also pretty much ignores the contributions of the German group that teamed up with TAU on the study.

“Blue-and-white breakthrough in the battle against cancer,” reads the main headline of Yedioth, illustrating that point perfectly. The paper, which includes a big picture (supplied by TAU) of cool-looking research head Dr. Carmit Levy looking her coolest (sporting a T-shirt, trendy scarf thingy, sunglasses, dreadlocks and the winnningest smile between here and Bhutan), even goes one step further and reports the study was published in the influential science journal Nature, when in actuality it was in the less well known Nature Cell Biology.

“Our research is an important step on the way to dealing with skin cancer, the hardest of all,” the paper quotes the even-keeled Levy saying, dispensing with all the hyperbole. “We hope our results will help turn melanoma in the future into a non-threatening disease that will be treated relatively easily.”

Haaretz, which commits the same sin of not quoting anyone outside the study, at least goes beyond Levy and the press release, speaking to other researchers involved.

“We have here a conceptual shift and from a purely scientific point of view this is an important milestone in melanoma research,” the paper quotes Dr. Ronen Berger, the head of oncology at Wolfson hospital, who was part of the research, saying.

Israel Hayom, which goes with a punny “Point of light” headline (the words for light and skin are homonyms in Hebrew, though it still makes no sense), also doesn’t go much beyond the press release, but at least interviews a Health Ministry official who doubles as a doctor and skin cancer suffer, reporting that he is only “cautiously optimistic” after news of the “breakthrough.”

“The idea at the basis of the research sounds amazing,” Dr. Hagai Kedem is quoted saying. “The million dollar question is how long it will take from these research reults to a working drug, and that’s something that can take years. Unfortunately, for me it’s already not relevant.”

Nearly as depressing – or hopeful, depending on how much you like war – is the news that Israel’s massive bombardment of Gaza Sunday night is not a one-off, but the new way of doing things, after sheriff/defense minister Avigdor Liberman rode into town to clean things up the old way.

“The equation has changed,” Israel Hayom’s main headline reads, quoting an unnamed Defense Ministry official. The so-called “equation” is the unstated policy that generally saw rocket strikes from Gaza being responded to by IDF strikes at Gaza in a 1:1 ratio.

The paper, relying on a slew of unnamed officials as well as completely unattributed statements, reports that Israel isn’t going to take any guff from Gaza anymore, though at the same time, like a mafioso who says he doesn’t want to see anything bad happen to you as he breaks your knuckles, these officials claim we don’t war.

“In the diplomatic echelon they explained that the harsh response was in order to make clear that there will be no forgiveness over fire directed at Israel. A diplomatic official noted yesterday that ‘the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are to not allow a situation of sporadic Kassam fire,’” the paper reports.

“At the same time, a senior defense official said even though the Israeli response was ‘out of the ordinary, Israel’s goal is not for an escalation [in violence].’”

In Haaretz, Amos Harel notes that despite Netanyahu appearing to go along with Liberman’s tactics, it’s not clear that the two are on the same page, which may be keeping Israel from all-out war.

“Under [Liberman’s] predecessor, Moshe Ya’alon, the policy-setting troika comprising the prime minister, defense minister and Israel Defense Forces chief of staff were in fundamental agreement. Senior defense officials concurred with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in wanting to avoid another war in Gaza, especially another ground war, and in believing that ousting the territory’s Hamas-run government was not worth the risks. But Liberman thinks otherwise. Shortly before entering the Defense Ministry, he made several aggressive statements about Hamas. Now, his critics in the media and his political rivals are using those statements to attack him for being soft,” he writes.

“It’s hard to rule out the possibility that this criticism had some effect on the decision about Sunday’s exceptional airstrikes. Is this new offensive policy liable to lead to another war? Netanyahu shows no interest in any such thing, and he is apparently the one who makes the final decisions.”

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