Arab citizens are systematically excluded from media coverage in Israel. Years of research have that although Arabs are nearly a fifth of Israel’s population, their share of representation in the various Hebrew-language media – television, radio, newspapers and Internet – as interviewees and spokespersons is only one-tenth of their proportion of the population. The media underrepresentation of Arabs in Israel has significant impact on the attitudes of the Jewish majority, especially in terms of relations between Jews and Arabs. Since in most real-life contexts in Israel – employment, education, residence, military service, etc. – there is significant separation between Jews and Arabs, most of the Jewish public forms its attitudes toward the Arab minority through their representation in the media, where the picture conveyed is deeply flawed due to underrepresentation, error and bias.
Apart from the severe numerical underrepresentation, coverage of the Arab minority is generally tendentious and negative. Typically, Arab citizens in the media are interviewed only for negative stories on the national conflict or problems with crime and poverty in Arab society; Arabs rarely appear as knowledgeable and authoritative commentators in their fields of professional expertise. This has a blatantly damaging effect on relations between Jews and Arabs, because the broader Jewish public is fed negative and hostile images of Arab society that portray Arabs as people who don’t make a productive contribution to Israeli society. Arabs, excluded by the mainstream media, feel unwanted in the Israeli public sphere. Note that the situation regarding the representation of Arab women is even worse, as they are absent almost entirely from the screen.
So we at Sikkuy decided to launch a project to address the representation of Arabs in the media. We chose an innovative, proactive approach, seeking to generate real and immediate change in how the media do things. Previous efforts of this kind focused on enlarging and improving the pool of potential Arab commentators, but by themselves these efforts had negligible impact. We learned from the successful campaign waged in Israel in recent years against the media’s exclusion of women, and decided to adopt an approach stressing cultivation of the demand, while applying public pressure on media decision makers.
The centrepiece of the project is our Representation Index – a weekly publication, the first of its kind, published in partnership with The Seventh Eye website and the Ben-Gurion University Department of Communication Studies, based on data supplied by the research firm Yifat Mechkarei Media. The Index systematically tracks the number and percentages of Arab interviewees on the broadcast/online media and also checks the proportion of experts among the Arabs interviewed. A weekly comparative table is published that examines Arab representation in news programs and on the various channels. Along with the weekly table appearing on The Seventh Eye, we also publicize campaigns and initiatives through social media networks to create buzz for the findings. All this makes the subject of the exclusion of Arabs in the media an issue that a lot people talk about, and ramps up its public importance. This includes identifying the editors, directors and newscasters behind the most discriminatory programs – but we also give kudos to those responsible for programs that excel in giving a fair platform and visibility to leading Arab interviewees.
The project’s goal is to motivate editors to change their priorities to give preference to Arab interviewees, and to put Arab representation on the media guild’s agenda. We decided to find ways to exert pressure and create motivation among opinion leaders and decision makers at the major media outlets and the leading news programs, as a starting point for a wave of change that will then be reflected at the smaller media outlets, too.
Since the launch of the Representation Index early in 2016, there has been a meaningful change in the attitude of the major TV channels and radio stations with regard to Arab representation in news programs. Since then, we have seen a significant increase in the percentage of Arab interviewees on many programs, especially of Arab experts appearing on monthly programs in their professional capacity without reference to their national origin. That senior news people and management have signed on to this campaign is discernible in an increase of tens of percentage points in the average proportion of Arab interviewees on the 22 news and current affairs programs checked by the Index, and many programs not included have also expressed interest.