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Say it, don’t spray it

July 31, 2009 – 11:24 am12 Comments

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by Jewin’ the fat.

(Read a longer version here.)

In the spider-web of facts, many a truth is strangled — Paul Eldridge

It’s funny how the media works in Australia. Newsworthiness (which sounds like a made up word, but is describing the distinct power of the story to sell papers) is a fluid concept, and entirely dependent on your geographic, socio-economic, ethno-religious, or football-code preference/affiliation.

So when we begin to unpack the quality of reporting on an issue, we are privy to a variety of components, which all add (or subtract) value from the facts (or fictions) being presented, including the allegiances of the editor, photographer, journalist and reader alike. Anne Barker, Middle East correspondent for the ABC  was in Jerusalem on July 4, covering one of the variety of protests that are held in the city every week.

In this case, ultra-Orthodox men wereout in force, protesting the Municipality decision to open a car park on the Jewish Sabbath, thereby enabling Jews and non-Jews alike to drive, which is against the laws of the day of rest. But coupled with protests against the handling of the arrest of an ultra-Orthodox woman, these protests were not just about a car park, but about the respect of the Jerusalem Municipality for their extremely religious residents.

Barker admits here to her own mistake, saying “I was mindful I would need to dress conservatively and keep out of harm’s way. But I made my mistake when I parked the car and started walking towards the protest, not fully sure which street was which.”

Itis clear from the images we have seen of these protests that these are angry people, demonstrating their right to assemble, with unfortunate consequences for Barker, as she continues:

“I was aware that earlier protests had erupted into violence on previous weekends – Orthodox Jews throwing rocks at police, or setting rubbish bins alight, even throwing dirty nappies or rotting rubbish at anyone they perceive to be desecrating the Shabbat.

I suddenly found myself in the thick of the protest – in the midst of hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews in their long coats and sable-fur hats. As the protest became noisier and the crowd began yelling, I took my recorder and microphone out of my bag to record the sound. Suddenly the crowd turned on me…”

Now let’s call this what it is – a far from naive foreign correspondent, who by her own admission has covered far more dangerous situations around the world, walks straight into the middle of a protest by an ultra-religious group which, again, as she says, she didn’t even understand.

“I wasn’t even sure why the mob was angry with me. Was it because I was a journalist? Or a woman? Because I wasn’t Jewish in an Orthodox area? Was I not dressed conservatively enough? In fact, I was later told, it was because using a tape-recorder is itself a desecration of the Shabbat even though I’m not Jewish and don’t observe the Sabbath.”

Barker’s conclusion that the crowd should have been “charitable or benevolent”, because they were “supremely religious” is far beyond the scope of this analysis, and is a thoughtless and green deduction. Nonetheless, it stands to reason she is surprised to be surrounded by hundreds of men, spat on, and allegedly hit from behind. She retreats behind the line of Israeli police keeping the protesters at bay.

No matter your opinion of Jews, or religious Jews, or journalists, no body deserves to feel “humiliated and degraded” for just doing their job. And apparently, other people agreed. Within hours of her personal account posting online, the story spread halfway around the world, and an op-ed by Joseph Wakim was posted on ABC Unleashed.

So that pesky ‘newsworthiness’ thing. Huffington Post specialises in picking up news from all over the world, and they deemed this story big enough to include in their wrap up. There is a dedicated Jewish weekly newspaper – The Australian Jewish News – which should have been very interested in the issue. More broadly, Barker, as an Australian citizen, should have been all over the national Australian newspapers as a shining example of the courage and fortitude of the intrepid reporter.

So the question must be raised as to why commercial and mainstream news media simply didn’t pick up on the story. After all, it was only reported on one media website – the rest didn’t want to touch it. Was it the poor professionalism, the crazed nature of the protest, or simply a matter of ‘wrong place, wrong time, stupid journalist’?

Why was this story not deemed newsworthy?

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