Embracing the joys and challenges of Jewish journalism

A few of the Jewish publications serving communities across the country.  

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

A major component of our mission at the Jewish Light is to connect the St. Louis Jewish community. We work to engage all the constituent parts with informative and vibrant stories, whether about the local landscape, or Israel, or world Jewry.

Some aspects about so-called Jewish journalism are just plain different from coverage in broader community outlets. After working in secular daily journalism for close to 30 years — 25 at the Post-Dispatch — it took me a little time to get used to editing and writing for a weekly Jewish community newspaper and website when I came to the Light in 2009. 

For example, at the Post we rarely listed sponsors and co-chairs of local events; at the Light we include this information routinely because we want to recognize, and in a way thank, the people and institutions that make these gatherings possible. 

Another element taken into consideration with a Jewish publication is the concept of lashon hara (“evil tongue” in Hebrew). Jewish law not only forbids us from gossiping, but also saying things that might hurt another person, even if they are true. Yet one could argue that in order to perform due diligence and fully report difficult or controversial stories, including information that could be hurtful may be necessary. 

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This challenge came up with our coverage of former Gov. Eric Greitens, the first Jewish governor of Missouri who recently resigned amidst several scandals. Though Greitens has not been convicted of any crime (charges against him were dropped when he resigned), in the months leading up to his resignation, the Light, along with most mainstream media outlets, included details of his extra-marital affair and an alleged partially nude photo he had taken of his mistress without her consent. Greitens repeatedly maintained he did not break any laws or commit any offense worthy of the negative publicity he received. (On Monday, the chairman of the Missouri House committee that had investigated Greitens said that he believed the 10-member panel had more than enough evidence to impeach the governor.)

So as a Jewish publication, we faced considerations such as lashon hara that didn’t affect non-Jewish media. This uniquely Jewish coverage issue was one of many subjects addressed last week at the American Jewish Press Association (AJPA) conference in Cleveland.Roughly 40 journalists and newspaper honchos from around the country, as well as some rabbis and academics, spent two full days discussing and debating issues that are relevant not only to media outlets in general, but to Jewish ones in particular. 

In one session, we discussed lashon hara in conjunction with a scenario about a popular rabbi who was leaving his congregation. An official press release said the rabbi had decided to move on, but it turns out he was asked to leave because of an extra-marital affair with a congregant. So the question became: Does a Jewish paper report the truth, or what the press release said? 

The conversation ignited a flurry of opinions. Some argued that a rabbi is a public figure in his community and as such, reporting the real reason for his departure was the right course of action. Others felt the affair was a personal matter and should not be publically discussed.

Our goal wasn’t so much to reach consensus, as it was to exchange ideas, trade best practices and network. I don’t know about you, but I find talking to colleagues about what excites, delights and frustrates us to be cathartic, and often empowering.

There’s a threat to this fellowship though, and it’s one that could impact the unique and important nature of Jewish journalism. And that is that the number of journalists at this conference has significantly dwindled. 

When I first attended nine years ago, dozens more editors, publishers, reporters and business managers came because AJPA had many more members. But declining newspaper circulation and advertising challenges have resulted in fewer resources, including little money for professional development opportunities that help to invigorate and propel momentum forward. In addition, some Jewish newspapers run by their city’s federation have shuttered or become one-person shops, while many independent nonprofit Jewish publications have found it difficult to attract new donors.

And that’s a shame because the best thing about Jewish journalism, especially community newspapers and websites such as the Light, is that we bring you stories, and Jewish sensibilities, you cannot get anywhere else. You need not look any further than this year’s winners of the Simon Rockower Awards, given annually for excellence in Jewish journalism, as evidence of the depth and breath of the Jewish experience chronicled in a myriad of beautifully written and well-researched stories, essays and commentaries. To read all or just a few of the award winners, go to http://bit.ly/2018-Rockower.

A few years ago, David Suissa, president of Tribe Media Inc. and the editor of the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, recommended that Jewish foundations and donors who worry about the future of Judaism invest in Jewish journalism. The reason, he explained, is that there is no Jewish institution more meaningful, more tolerant, more convenient or more connective. At its best, he said, Jewish journalism “puts up a mirror to our community that keeps us honest and encourages progress.” 

“In short, no other Jewish institution can offer this breadth of Jewish experience in such a convenient and mobile package,” Suissa wrote. “This makes Jewish journalism — whether offered digitally or on paper — the ultimate modern-day vehicle to ignite Jewish sparks and keep us continually connected to our community, our tradition and one another.  

“And yet, tragically, journalism may be the least-respected institution in the Jewish world. Why? Maybe because journalism doesn’t promote a specific agenda which, ironically, is precisely its strength — by promoting all the flavors of Judaism, journalism gives people true freedom of choice.”

In this modern-day climate, with charges of fake news and regularly maligned media, it’s important to remember that many journalists feel deeply connected to the community they cover. At the Light, we serve a dual purpose of being part of the local Jewish community and a news outlet providing fair and accurate coverage of the people, places and institutions that make our community unique. We understand that not everyone might like what we write, or agree with it, but that as long as we keep informing, inspiring and connecting our community, we are doing an important job.