Fighting Biased Media Coverage of Bedouin Communities

25 May 2022

This Spring, NIF’s action arm Shatil and NIF grantee Sikkuy-Aufoq launched a new collaborative training program called Exposure to the Negev, designed to help Bedouin spokespeople more effectively tell their stories to the media. Participants in the training have successfully placed stories in mainstream media outlets including Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s leading newspaper, and its online edition, Ynet, as well as Israel’s public broadcaster, and the local Negev press.

The training was conceived amidst the recent bout of violence in Bedouin communities. That violence, perpetrated by a small few, led to gross stereotypes from news outlets and others. Both Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and famed singer Idan Raichel referred to the Negev as the “wild west,” and multiple sources called Bedouins “thugs” and “terrorists.” This inflammatory and racist language and framing is what the training aimed to combat.

NIF Israel Director Mickey Gitzin puts it this way in his recent Haaretz Op-ed:

When we call it terrorism, we turn it from a social, cultural, criminal, and economic issue into a security issue, into a bomb that fell on us one day out of nowhere … ignoring the (years of) planning discrimination, extreme inequality, complete lack of infrastructure, lack of access to basic education, high unemployment, and severe poverty that constitute the root causes of the violence.

Yet the media’s penchant for sensational stories and the framing of the Bedouin minority as “dangerous” is just a part of the problem, explains Shatil media consultant Shlomit Maman: “I was troubled by the unprofessional press releases I’ve come across from Bedouin local authorities that are completely missing the mark.”

Coordinated by Shatil media consultants Mamam and Ilanit Edri and by Sikkuy-Aufoq’s Shared Society Co-director Edan Ring, the Exposure to the Negev program ran from February 16 through May 25, 2022. The 14 training participants acquired practical skills such as writing a press release, building a media strategy, finding the right spin for a story, and identifying appropriate media outlets as their targets. Participants also drilled down into topics such as marketing to Arabic language outlets and the importance of accurate navigation of management and media outlet ownership maps.

One training highlight was a behind-the-scenes visit to the Yedioth Ahronoth/Ynet newspaper’s premises. Participants received specific guidelines on timelines for submitting press releases from a Ynet senior staff member, and learned how to approach editorial staff. Yedioth editors engaged in a frank discussion about editorial priorities and gave the spokespeople tips for increasing the likelihood of their story being run.

Even with Shatil and Sikkuy-Aufoq’s years of experience in strengthening the skills of under-resourced groups, training facilitators discovered challenges with this training that stretched them beyond their roles as instructors. Maman shares:

“There is a deep lack of trust between the Bedouin people and Jewish mainstream media. Years of discrimination and marginalization have left the Bedouin community quite hopeless about the potential for getting media personnel to publish their stories, while editorial staff complain that Bedouin sources often lack credibility and information can be inaccurate.” Training facilitators found themselves negotiating tension-ridden discussions in overcoming these barriers.

In addition, a series of violent incidents in the Negev during the training threatened the course’s continuity. Exasperated by how the media portrayed these events, participants debated whether or not they should be working with the media at all. Meanwhile, in order to fundamentally flip the script, NIF just approved a rapid response grant for a new project called Negev Media, established by former NIF board member and veteran Bedouin leader Amal Elsana Alh’jooj. Guided by Shatil, and in partnership with the Arab Jewish Center for Empowerment, Equality, and Cooperation (AJEEC-NISPED), the new project has enlisted five university student interns to review media coverage of the Bedouin community, and to produce stories that provide the Jewish public with a picture that faithfully reflects Bedouin society with its challenges and complexities. The interns will receive a stipend and training. Two professional media coordinators will promote articles and interviews vis-a-vis the media outlets, and run press tours for senior editorial staff.

Gitzin writes: “Neglect of many decades has brought Bedouin society and the entire south into an abyss from which the road out is difficult and long.”  Yet experience has shown Shatil, NIF, and Israel’s social change community that — with pooled and concerted efforts — change is possible.