News Fit to Frame: Jodi Rudoren on National Service in Israel

In her front page story today about a volunteer national service program in Israel, New York Times reporter Jodi Rudoren notes that “62 percent of the Arab public backed the program.”

It is curious, then, that 82 percent of the article’s quoted words from Arabs are spoken against national service. (This figure actually understates the article’s overall disproportion. It does not take into account the two Israeli professors who highlight only perspectives against national service, nor does it include the quoted words of posters that likewise argue against the program.)

The problem here is not that Rudoren provides fake quotes. Of course she doesn’t. It’s an issue of framing. Even though most Arabs in Israel support national service, the piece is written in a way that leaves readers with an overwhelming and predominant sense of Arab opposition to the program.

Readers hear from a single young Arab girl, Nagham Ma’abuk, who supports and participates in the national service program. But her voice gets lost in a staccato of statements by opponents of integration and national service: Ehab Helo comes out against integration with the state. Radical Arab parliamentarian Hanin Zoabi jumps on the opportunity to level sharp words agaist national service, and against Israel as a whole. Four teenagers express that they are “against, against, against and against” the program. Rozeen Kanboura adds another “against.” And Ayan Abunasra makes her “articulate” case in opposition to the program.

This is analogous to a presidential debate in which viewers hear from one candidate, then from his opponent — and then from each member of the opponent’s senior campaign team. A stacked deck affects perception.

The article also frames its discussion of poverty in a way that leads to an unmistakable, but incomplete, conclusion:

When modern Israel was created 64 years ago, its Declaration of Independence promised “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants,” and in 1952 citizenship was granted to about 150,000 Palestinians living within its borders. Today, 1.6 million Arabs live in Israel, making up about 20 percent of the population, with an average income less than two-thirds that of Jewish residents, according to statistics compiled by Professor Rekhess, and a poverty rate nearly three times as high.

The implication is clear: Arabs in Israel have a lower average income than Jews in that country, so they must not have the equal social and political rights promised to them. Readers are not told, however, that “Israeli Arab Christians are on average more affluent than Israeli Jews and better-educated, even scoring higher on their SATs,” as Israel’s ambassador to the United States recently explained. Nor are they informed that there is another group in Israel just as poor as Arabs — ultra-Orthodox Jews, who share with the Arab Muslim population exemption from national service as well as very large family size, lower levels of secular education and generally only one parent in the work force. If you expand the frame to provide a more complete picture, the story changes.
The issue is not just that the piece marginalizes the views of most Israeli Arabs, who favor the national service program. The most subtle use of framing relates to the article’s broadest theme. The story Rudoren tells about Arab resistance to the volunteer program is a story about a national minority struggling to “reconcile their identity as citizens of a Jewish state,” about Arabs focusing on their rights, their idea of “homeland,” and their burdens.
This is certainly a narrative worth sharing. But there is another side to the story as well, one that is no less compelling and important, but that is generally overlooked by the newspaper. When some Arabs in Israel, like the radical parliamentarian Zoabi, call for the country to annul its status as the Jewish state and reject the deep Jewish connection to the land, this raises serious concerns in the minds of the Israeli majority about their own national rights. When some speak out against integration with the state, Israeli Jews worry that the ongoing battle to preserve their right to national self-determination, which was earned and defended at great cost, could become more difficult yet. When certain Arab leaders speak of the “impossibility of this situation of being Arabs in a Jewish state,” as the New York Times story claims, disconcerting questions are raised about rejection of the majority by the minority. Israeli Jews are made to remember that in the greater Middle East, this majority-minority relationship is reversed — the region is only about one 1 percent Jewish — and that all too many among the Arab majority are hostile toward Jewish national rights and even toward the Jewish people (if those two things are different).
The Middle East is about more than Israeli power and Palestinian victimhood. It’s a much more complex place. And so it is worth remembering Ari L. Goldman’s warning against forcing a story into a particular frame. Recounting his experience covering the Crown Heights riots for the New York Times, the Columbia University journalism professor implored

it is important that we journalists examine our mistakes and learn from them. Fitting stories into frames — whether about blacks and Jews, liberals or conservatives, Arabs and Israelis, Catholics and Protestants or Muslims and Jews — is wrong and even dangerous. Life is more complicated than that. And so is journalism.

Comments are closed.