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Activist pushes for greater Middle East media accuracy

Aryeh GreenNEVER underestimate the power of words.

The ability of words and phrases to affect reality — to actually alter perception — is of great interest to Aryeh Green, who directs an Israel-based entity called Media Central.

It specializes in making contact with the media which cover the Middle East, especially Israel, to assist reporters in their assignments, and to counsel them as to how the words and phrases they choose can have significant, and sometimes harmful, impact on the subjects they cover.

A rapid-speaking man of impressive intellectual depth and breadth, Green was in Denver last month at the invitation of the American Jewish Committee Colorado chapter, for which he spoke before groups of Denver and Boulder Jews and Christians involved in the AJC’s inter-religious dialogue.

Media Central, he told the Intermountain Jewish News, is a project of Honest, a non-profit which monitors and sometimes criticizes the media covering Israel.

Acknowledging that many members of the media “love to hate” such organizations as Honest Reporting and CAMERA precisely for such criticism, Green says that pro-Israel media watchdogs are often associated with a right-wing agenda.

“Because they’re critical, people see them as very pro-Israel and even right-wing,” says Green, who describes himself as a “moderate” in political terms.

“I don’t think objectively that’s true, but that’s how they’re seen.”

In 2006, Honest Reporting asked Green — an international relations specialist who had long worked in Israel’s public and private sectors, to take the reins of a project intended to chart a new path in media relations.

Green paraphrases the organization’s intent:

“We’ve been very successful in criticizing the media when they get the story wrong, but maybe there’s a mechanism we can create to help the media get the story right in the first place.”

OF course, getting a story “right” can also be problematic, Green concedes.

As in, right according to whom?

“I believe there are factual elements . . . which are recognized objectively by objective observers,” he says.

“It’s those nuances of the complexity of the conflict or the legal situation or the facts on the ground which are often missing in media reporting.

Therefore, the idea that there is a ‘right’ story, that there is actually an issue here of accuracy and bias, can be argued.”

Media Central, Green emphasizes, does not pitch or spin stories to journalists, although it sometimes suggests stories that might otherwise not be covered. It does not serve as a public relations arm of the government or any other Israeli or Palestinian entity, nor does it advance any particular official political or social agenda.

The organization’s five staffers (including one Arabic-speaking Palestinian) hold press briefings, conduct field tours and provide journalists with everything from translators and tour guides to analysts and mechanics.

When journalists are new to their Israeli posts, Media Central makes an effort to reach out to them. When they’ve been there awhile, they often contact Media Central on their own.

Their reputation for objectivity is crucial to the success of their mission, Green says.

“We are the only non-governmental organization that focuses on dealing with the media in Israel that does not have a political agenda.

“What I’ve found is that that agendas don’t work very well with the journalists who are based in Israel. These are professional journalists who are actually looking to go deeper into stories, to get a more nuanced understanding of the history of the conflict and the reality on the ground.

“What they need is help to do that, without the political agenda, so they don’t have to wade through, you know, ‘what are these guys trying to pitch me.’”

By toeing a careful line between practical support and gentle correction, Green says, Media Central is building relationships with an impressive array of international journalists in Israel, including representatives from such outlets as Al Jazeera English and BBC.

“They’re beginning to say to one another, ‘When you need help, these are the first guys to turn to because they’re fast, they’re credible, they’re professional and they’re not trying to pitch you a story or trying to spin a message,” Green says.

“The relationships that I have are based on my helping them to achieve their own goal of being accurate in their reporting.”

MEDIA Central exists to prevent the kind of textual and conceptual media errors that far more often than not discredit Israel, or to correct them once they’re made.

Green is well-armed with examples.

When Time Magazine ran a cover piece last September entitled “Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace,” Green arranged a discussion with the reporter who wrote it. In that meeting, while acknowledging that the piece in question was far more thoughtful and fair than the title suggested, he expressed his objections to an overall presentation that conveyed an obvious anti-Israel tilt.

Green has brought journalists into Israel’s desert regions where Bedouin tribes reside, so that journalists can personally interview these indigenous people torn between their traditional nomadic lifestyle and the 21st century.

The reporters learned, many of them for the first time, that Bedouins have a right of appeal when government evacuation orders are issued and that the Israeli government offers compensation and relocation benefits.

“The nuances of that story should come out in good reporting as opposed to the headlines that often were, ‘Israel violating Bedouin human rights by demolishing their houses.’”

Many of Green’s toughest challenges lie in basic terminology. When headlines or lead paragraphs report that Israel “attacks” Gaza, the copy is already conveying an inaccurate picture, he contends.

An accurate sentence would convey something like “Israeli responds to rocket attacks from Gaza,” which at least provides some context for whatever Israeli action — or reaction — is being covered.

While he doesn’t expect journalists to write hundreds of words — or speak for two minutes — providing historical context for every Israel-Palestinian story, he does urge reporters to get their basic terms straight.

“It’s a question of both context, which you can give in a half a second, and the terminology,” Green says. “Many media outlets describe Israel’s settlements with a number of different adjectives added, either ‘illegal settlements’ or, if they have enough room, ‘Israel’s settlements in the occupied territories which are illegal under international law.’

“Not to give a lecture in international law, but, as I’ve pointed out to many journalists, including a number of American journalists     . . . there’s actually a discussion about whether these Jewish communities are actually illegal under international law.”

The history of the region and the circumstances of its governing powers are very complex, challenging even for diplomats and world leaders to grasp, let alone journalists.

At best, the territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip are “disputed,” a term that is far less subjective and judgmental than “occupied” or “illegal,” Green says.

“By using that term ‘occupied,’ you’re automatically suggesting that Israel has no right to be there.”

For that matter, he asks, why are Jewish communities in the territories almost always called “settlements?”

“The term ‘settlement’ is a pejorative,” Green says. “These communities should be described as Jewish villages, in the same way that Palestinian villages are described.”

Similarly, are people who kill other people for political reasons most accurately referred to as terrorists, militants, guerrillas, freedom fighters, activists or rebels?

Green doesn’t provide a ready answer to that question, but he says the choice of words should be seriously considered before a reporter wraps up a story and files it.

The chosen word will very likely influence how that reader or viewer ultimately feels about the subject of the story.

“What I try to do is help journalists in that situation understand the power of the terminology they’re using, even in a 200-word piece,” he says.

“I believe that accuracy is Israel’s best ally. Yes, I’m pro-Israel. Yes, I would like to see Israel represented more positively in the news, but my belief is that if you use terminology which is accurate it will both serve your purposes as a journalist and 98% of the time it will reflect better on Israel.”

LOADED phraseology and terminology, Green says, is a result of neither journalistic laziness or bias.

“The vast majority of these people are consummate professionals and I’m not saying that just to consolidate my relationship with them,” he says. “These are good journalists with good experience who are working in a very difficult field.

“However, there are a number of things that contribute to what I believe is a trend toward simplifying the issues and the history. We can see that with the majority of the media in America. They do accept a general framing of the issues.”

That framing has evolved gradually but significantly from 1967, in Green’s opinion. The conflict once depicted as the Israeli David versus the Arab Goliath is now framed as the Israeli Goliath versus the Palestinian David.

In that context, the media must constantly be reminded that there remains a vital and legitimate Jewish claim to the land of Israel and that the virtually unbroken Arab and Muslim rejection of that claim is the real reason why peace has not been achieved.

“That story has not been told because there has been this general acceptance of this reframing of the conflict,” Green says.

“I don’t believe it’s bias or sloppiness. I believe it is ignorance, using the term in its most specific form. There’s a lack of knowledge of a lot of the issues — history, legality — a shallowness of understanding. Our role is to help them go deeper.”

Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor |

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