A project aimed at increasing Arab representation in the Israeli media has made rapid gains, using public pressure and hard data.
By Edan Ring
Regular followers of the news on Israeli television and radio are unlikely to have missed a significant change that has been taking place over the last few months. More and more Arab interviewees are appearing on the screen, in particular pundits who have been invited to speak about their personal and professional expertise. This was, until recently, a rare sight.
A year ago, Sikkuy — a Jewish-Arab civil rights NGO based in Israel — began a wide-scale public campaign to increase the representation of Arab citizens in the Israeli media. In partnership with The Seventh Eye website we began publishing the statistics on the topic in a weekly “Representation Index.” The statistics show that since March 2016, there has been an increase of dozens of percentage points in the ratio of expert Arab interviewees, and in general there has been a significant increase in the presence of Arab interviewees on television and radio, primarily news programs.
The dramatic change of the last few months and the lively discourse surrounding the issue on social media and in the media world are the direct result of the index and the accompanying publicity. The flood of data, the highlighting of previously excluded figures, and the comparison between them led to a real change in news programs.
The numbers back up the overall impression: while at the beginning of the year around 30 Arab experts appeared on television and radio every month, over the last few months the number of interviewees reached 100 experts or more. Before the index began only around 10 percent of all Arab interviewees were invited to speak about their realm of expertise, and the rest were mainly interviewed on issues characteristic of or identified with Arab society — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, crime, poverty etc. In September the percentage of experts among all Arab interviewees had reached nearly 30 percent.
When we started the campaign to increase the representation of Arabs in the media we never imagined that we would see results within a year. So what caused such a significant change in such a short time and what can we learn from it?
There is no doubt that the first and most significant factor that facilitated this change (which is relevant to many other social struggles) is the understanding that excluding Arabs stems first and foremost from the policies and priorities of decision-makers in the media, and is not an integral part of the media landscape in Israel.
We understood that the discrimination wouldn’t end unless decision-makers were either made to pay a public price for their exclusionary policies, or were able to gain something from changing them. In other words, we placed a price tag on the exclusion and decided to directly and publicly confront the people responsible for it — in exactly the same way as women’s organizations did before us against the exclusion of women in the media, by creating excellent campaigns that we learned much from.
This kind of criticism of the media isn’t a trifling issue. For civil society it poses a real danger, and it’s no wonder that many organizations weren’t keen on attacking the media directly, preferring instead to use other positive tactics. Those who want to make social change have much to lose by confronting the media, because without it it’s difficult to organize struggles to advance justice and equality. But on this issue we understood that there was no choice.
In a short time we also discovered that, alongside the understandable discomfort following exposure of the exclusion of Arabs, our aggressive yet professional approach also sparked appreciation and a desire to work together among the media figures we criticized. The weekly Representation Index covered the three national television stations and two public radio stations, along with a regular table of 19 news programs; this created healthy competition between the editors and researchers, which drew attention to the subject.
Within a number of weeks we were frequently approached by television and radio stations that wanted to identify and invite more Arab interviewees but didn’t know how to find them. Many publicly declared their support for the campaign, and others told us personally that they had set themselves the goal of reaching the top of the table.
Representatives from the media and news programs are now initiating coverage and bringing in Arab experts, and asking civil society to assist them. This was the goal of our campaign. Yet sparking motivation among program editors alone is not enough. Alongside the stick of public criticism and pressure on media decision makers, we also needed a carrot that would assist them in locating interviewees and creating change.
To this end, in the last year we also saw the launch of A-List — an online searchable expert database created by the activist organization Anu together with Sikkuy. This database helps to disprove a number of the most common excuses and assumptions among editors and journalists about the absence of Arab experts from their broadcasts.
Our work with many news editors over the last few months shows that there is no deficiency of Arab interviewees, but there is a problem regarding priorities and investment of resources. Those who are determined to work against exclusion can do it, even if their lack of knowledge of Arab society makes it slightly harder at first.
Despite the successes, however, it’s important to clarify that the positive changes taking place on the screen are far from being an irreversible reality. The changes we see are not at the infrastructural or organizational level; there are still not enough Arab journalists in the system, and no media organization has set clear procedures or policies on the issue.
The last year has taught us that criticism and action to change the media are the missions of civil society, and that it’s possible to create a positive and meaningful change. For the first time we saw the potential for and hope in another kind of media — one that gives a platform to Arab citizens alongside the Jewish majority, without harming its popularity or profitability. In this political reality the media has a strategic role in advancing and strengthening the perceptions of Jews and Arabs and their influence on relations between them. We must not make do with less than that.
Edan Ring is the head of public activities and the Representation Index at Sikkuy. A version of this article also appears in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.