Exacerbating Social Cleavages: The Media's Role in Israel's Religious-Secular Conflict

Article excerpt

This article challenges the traditional model of the media as a positive agent for political socialization. The increasing variety of news sources has reversed the role of the media, contributing to growing cultural fragmentation, rather than the unification of nations. One of the most volatile cultural cleavages in countries around the world is the clash between fundamentalist and secular members of the same religion. This work explores the role of the media in societal rifts through a study of the secular and religious press in Israel. The potentially divisive impact of the media has implications for other countries in the Middle East that are also characterized by religious-secular tensions.

The media is a key actor in the development of a country's political culture and the socialization of its citizens. The ability of the press to reach across segments of society has made it an invaluable tool in sparking political change, bridging social gaps, and forging common national identities. Recent technological advances have provided increased access to a wider variety of media and lowered the cost of producing news. However, contrary to similar historical changes, these advances have widened rather than narrowed societal cleavages.

In most stable Western democracies the differences in media framing generally reflect a narrow spectrum of differences between center-left and center-right ideologies. By contrast, in more divided societies the disparity in media framing results in starkly divergent information being provided to different segments of the public. As the public in such societies is able to increasingly choose media that frames the news according to their own views, the role of the press has reversed. Instead of providing society's factions with a similar understanding of the world, different groups are presented differing, sometimes contradictory, framings of events.

Most, if not all, of the countries in the Middle East face a growing divide between religious and secular segments of society. Israel, though one of the most Westernized states in the region, is not immune to this trend. This article points to the media's role in exacerbating, rather than bridging, secular-religious tensions.

Media Framing & Society

Individuals' understanding of the society in which they live is based in large part on the information and images they receive from the media. Beyond merely conveying information, the media helps us understand and interpret reality.1 The media frames the information it delivers when it selects "some aspects of a perceived reality and makes them more salient in a communicating text."2

Media frames emphasize particular aspects of events and form a central organizing theme, connecting and relating individual occurrences or actions.3 The way in which the media frames an issue has an important effect on where it will be ranked on the public agenda.4 Framing theories emphasize the media's power in agenda-setting and its "ability to mentally order and organize our world for us."5 Through framing, the media consolidates complex issues in a coherent way for the public.6 However, the decision to make a subject or image more prominent in the construction of a news report gives it "an identifiable slant."7 The choice of which items to emphasize will, in many cases, determine whether the public perceives the information positively or negatively.8 Myriad research has illustrated the ways in which the media directs public opinion on a range of issues.9 The expanding variety of news sources has, in many cases, had the paradoxical effect of limiting the frames to which the public is exposed, as individuals and groups increasingly expose themselves only to media that reflects their own views.10

In framing an issue, the media determines which issues will be highlighted and which will be excluded. This helps define various political, social, and cultural issues for the audience. …