How did Israeli television news communicate the pandemic in early 2020? In one word: Panic. If anything, I think that news should not make us anxious. Particularly in times of crisis, news should inform us, so that we can decide how to act.
Since its foundation, Israel has been entangled in a constant state of emergency (The Knesset), due to a “protracted conflict”, which evidently influences the news media’s conduct (Peri 2012, p.21) as well as its audiences. Even though the public shows low trust in the media (Mida blog, 2018), Israelis are quite ‘obsessive’ to hard news (Peri 2012, p. 20). Looking at the initial Covid-19 outbreak as communicated in the mass media, the event significantly lured television audiences: in the first Corona months, television news ratings skyrocketed to roughly 30% viewers (in particular in March 2020). Considering the numerous viewers during this health and socioeconomic crisis, I have been examining how Israeli televised news communicated the pandemic in early 2020.
In one word: Panic. But more specifically, I will share some viewing impressions to clarify that. The three most viewed evening newscasts in Israel are fairly competitive and are broadcasted around the same time. The most watched broadcast (and one of the most viewed television shows in general) is ‘News12’ by Keshet – a private commercial channel. The second most watched newscast is ‘News13’ by another private commercial channel, Reshet. The third is by the Public Broadcasting Corporation Kan, formerly the Israeli public ‘Channel 1’. Apart from a few differences between the public and private channels’ prime-time newscasts (among them different story angles and representation of minorities, as I have observed), they present more or less the same: Similar highlighted stories, mutual news sources, the same style and broadcast duration of 70-80 minutes.
Let us dive into an Israeli news experience by looking at the first Corona patient in Israel. First, as usual, all newscasts play a thrilling beat music accompanying the opening headlines. Then, they open with the first item, devoting about 10-minute airtime to that main story. The reporters introduce the story as followed (transcribed and translated from Hebrew):
The Corona panic in Israel is gaining momentum today. An Israeli returned from Italy, sick with Corona; but before he knew it, he had been walking around in public places. – Noga Nir-Ne’eman, anchor, Reshet, 27.02.2020
After long weeks of knocking on Israel’s doors and halted, this morning it happened. The new corona virus has managed to penetrate Israel. – Yoav Even, medical reporter, Keshet, 27.02.2020
It was a matter of time. A month since the outbreak of the Corona virus globally, today in Israel the first patient to be infected. – Michal Rabinovich, anchor, Kan, 27.02.2020
Beyond the terminology “panic”, “penetration” and “a matter of time”, one cannot ignore the nerve-wracking intonation of reporters in Israel (for example, play it here: Reshet or Kan or Keshet from 03:30min). One does not have to speak Hebrew to understand the dramatized tones. The story was this: a man in his 40s came back from Italy feeling ill and tested positive with Covid-19; he is in a good condition and his family, as well as people who have been in contact with him, are in quarantine. For this important, urgent, yet humble information, all three newscasts provided about five different angles, placed several reporters in every related-location possible: outside the hospital where the man was hospitalized, outside the store where he worked, at the airport through which he passed by, on a phone call with his wife, etc.
I find the connection between the situation, the story and the wishful public reaction very shaky. The dramatization by music, high intonation, special effects and live reporting from numerous locations – probably causes stress, anxiety and confusion, rather than offering information. If anything, I think that news should not make us anxious. Particularly in times of crisis, news should inform us, so that we can decide how to act.
To handle this problem and to avoid enhanced unnecessary anxiety, I can only recommend Israelis: take a deep breath, and keep your mask on.
By take a deep breath, I mean, literally, breathe; try to calm down. If you want to stay healthy and make good decisions for yourself and your loved ones, first reversely evaluate how good are decisions made under high stress levels. Keep your mask on, literally, but also, symbolically. Follow the policymakers, even if you do not trust them; remember that they have a greater picture of the situation. They cannot take care of you individually, but rather of your society.
Additionally and above all, turn your television off. I mean, avoid watching the Israeli television newscasts as much as possible—especially those by the commercial channels, as their motivation is primarily lucrative. Instead, try to find reliable straightforward information in different media outlets, as well as at least one foreign source. For reassurance, you can easily compare your local policy decisions to those in other countries. I am sure, that if science was involved in the decision process, you are probably following the right path. As Joe Biden said a little while back: follow the science (NBC News, 07.10.2020).