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In Search of Journalistic Integrity

Rabbi Yonason Goldson

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

Published Jan. 11, 2017

In Search of Journalistic Integrity

When the media become more interested in creating news than in reporting it

What are the hottest news topics of the New Year?

I turned to Google News to find out. By adding "2017" in my computer's search bar, I created my own (small and unscientific) database profiling some of the most reported current events topics.

One might expect — naively, to be sure — that the most pressing issues of the day would populate the brightest constellations of reportage across the firmament of internet news. So let's take a look at which topics got the most hits:

           • Vladimir Putin: 15.6 million

           • Terrorism: 24.7 million

           • Climate change: 29 million

           • Gay: 41.5 million

           • Israel: 74.4 million


Now what can we make of all this?

Vladimir Putin — Czar of the resurrected Russian empire, charged with meddling in American elections by hacking — came in last among my five search terms. Representing possibly the single greatest threat of global destabilization, the Oligarch-in-Chief doesn't even win a bronze medal in the Google News olympiad.

Also failing to make it into medal territory was terrorism which, despite scoring almost twice as many hits as President Vlad, still fell short of the top three. Let's hope that Mr. Putin, Kim Jong Un, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei don't hear about these results; they might cause more mischief in hope of upping their rankings.

Edging out terrorism by 4 million hits was climate change. That's certainly an issue of global importance, but not enough to earn silver or gold.

Now we come to the really critical stories of the year. Based on the amount of news coverage, issues concerning the gay community are more relevant than Vladimir Putin and terrorism combined.

But none of these stories holds a candle to what is clearly the most significant issue on the planet.

THE ENVELOPE PLEASE…

Easily winning gold with almost double the score of gay issues is Israel, taking the top position by a margin of more than 30 million hits in 2017 news headlines.

There's a curious inversion here. The topics of Putin, terrorism, and climate change are all truly matters of global significance, affecting the life of every soul on earth. And yet, since the beginning of the year, media attention for Putin and climate change combined was less than it was for the LGBT community — which makes up only 3.8% of American society — while reporting of all three together added up to less than it was for Israel, a country with barely 0.1% of the world's population.

In other words, the fewer people affected by the story, the more time the media was likely to spend reporting it.

How does this make any kind of sense?

DON'T MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS

In response to a recent hail of correspondence complaining about liberal bias, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch attempted to defend itself by claiming that the editorial board's opinions have absolutely no influence over news reporting, only over "opinion" essays.

Let's assume for the moment that not one iota of editorial bias creeps into the hard news stories of any metropolitan news service (an assumption many would dispute). Even if that's true, there's more than one way to skew a story.

Unbalanced reportage aside, the sheer volume of stories can be a form of slanted journalism unless the frequency of reporting is evenly balanced against the objective weight of the story. By injecting topics into the headlines disproportionate to their relevance, the news media create an illusion that stories are either more or less important than they actually are.

Case in point: Add the word "Islamic" to your search for terrorism and the results plummet by 80%, even though the highest-profile terror attacks tend to be linked to Islamic extremism. Might that be symptomatic of the media's determination to influence how the public thinks about terrorism and its major exporters?

SETTING THE AGENDA

But when it comes to homosexual and gender issues, the media has a passion for making the matter appear vastly more wide-reaching than it is. This would explain the Gallup results that Americans believe that 23% of the country is LGBT — nearly six times higher than the actual number. After all, how could something that affects less than four percent of the nation so consistently dominate the headlines?

Then there is Israel. A tiny sliver of land at the edge of the third world with 8 million citizens in a world of 7 billion, a country with few natural resources, the only democracy in the region, surrounded by 300 million people who don't like them very much. Why should news about this country overshadow every international news topic on the planet?

It's not entirely the fault of the media. In 2015, the UN adopted 20 resolutions against Israel. That's almost seven times as many as the rest of the world combined. Does Israel really pose a greater threat to international security and world peace than Iran, Syria, and North Korea together by 667%?

If so, Israel could teach Vladimir Putin a thing or two about global destabilization.

It's the responsibility of the news media — and even more so the leadership of the world community — to present facts as they are, in context, and in proportion to their true importance. To use reporting as a means of manipulating public opinion is profoundly unethical and dangerously immoral.

And it is equally unethical for consumers of news to believe what they read and hear without a large measure of skepticism and due diligence evaluating the accuracy of every story.

Rabbi Yonason Goldson is a professional speaker and trainer.  Drawing upon his experiences as a hitchhiker, circumnavigator, newspaper columnist, high school teacher, and talmudic scholar, he teaches practical strategies for enhancing communication, ethical conduct, and personal achievement. He is the author of Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages is available on Amazon.

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