Shedding ‘Light’ on our coverage of the war in Gaza

By Larry Levin and Ellen Futterman

How do you cover a war in Israel and Gaza from St. Louis? When do you give public attention to anti-Semitic acts? How do you cover pro-Palestinian demonstrations?

The situation in Israel and Gaza has wrought highly emotional reactions from Jews worldwide, and in a conflict involving death, grief, threats to the very existence of Israel and worldwide anti-Semitism, that’s both understandable and to be expected.

News outlets receive a great share of criticism during such times, much of it accurate and legitimate, some of it not so much. Readers make assumptions about coverage, ascribing bias and prejudgment to both news stories and opinion pieces. Sometimes those accusations are spot on, and other times, poor journalism can be attributed to, well, poor work by journalists.

We are hardly above making mistakes, and part of the somewhat cruel truth of publishing news is that one’s errors in fact and judgment are right out there for all to see. As a media organization on the small side, we are fully aware of our limitations and strive to maximize our resources, not to mention our accuracy, for the benefit of our reader community.

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On the heels of our recent Can We Talk? event about news coverage of the conflict, we thought it might be useful to turn the tables on ourselves and provide our readers with a Q&A about some of our own coverage choices and why we do what we do.

So, with the goal of providing you with some inside baseball about the Light’s coverage of events surrounding the Israel-Gaza conflict, here we go: 

How do you decide what news to provide about the conflict?

For the most part, we do not generate breaking news about the conflict, as we are not on the ground with reporters present in Israel or Gaza. We largely rely on the JTA wire service and, when affordable, other first-hand sources. Some news sources like JTA require rights payments for stories in print, and others don’t.

When there’s a local angle – like St. Louis’ Circus Harmony troupe being stranded in Israel during the no-fly period, or IDF paratrooper Max Levin, who grew up here, being wounded – we will do first-hand, original reporting.

When there are offshoot stories that happen here in St. Louis, we will also cover them. So, for instance, when a grossly anti-Semitic slur was cut into the grounds of the Westwood Country Club, we covered that as well. 

What opinion pieces and letters do you try to include?

Many different ones, both local and otherwise, from as many different sources as we can find that reflect diversity of opinion from the Jewish and Israeli world. The viewpoints are largely, but not exclusively, supportive of Israel, which reflects our overall readership’s general views. 

Not all those supportive of Israel agree with the country’s political leadership, and some who are highly loyal to Israel think it’s important to address the plight of the Palestinian people as well. We would not seek or provide space for articles that openly advocate the destruction of Israel or   support of Hamas, a terror organization, as those include hate speech and are contrary to our mission and editorial policies.

If you are supposed to be the local source for Jewish news, how do you ensure timely coverage as a weekly newspaper?

Every day, we update our website, stljewishlight.com, with breaking news of interest to our readers. This includes not only international and national news, but also local news. It’s not uncommon for a story to appear on our website before it appears in the paper because of when it occurred in our news cycle. 

So, for example, when a white supremacist gunned down three people in Overland Park, Kan., about 2 p.m. on a Sunday last April, we had a story on our website by 4 that day. We kept updating the story on the website and then for the paper when it went to press Tuesday night. We encourage our readers to go to our website for the latest news. 

What about local protests and rallies – how do those get covered? When are they news and when are they not?

The short and ambiguous answer is: it depends. Really, each instance has its own nuances, which affect its coverage.

If the event is one that has significant interest to, or involvement by, the Jewish community, we strive to cover it. So the Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) events have all been covered, but so have those organized by community members on their own.

Each event, however, requires a separate analysis about the scope and focus of coverage:

• If protesters show up at a solidarity event like the one the Federation and JCRC had July 29, with the apparent purpose of disrupting the event, there’s little value in covering their actions other than in passing. Television stations might like this kind of “hotspot” news from a ratings perspective, but to us, it’s more akin to a streaker running across the field at a ballgame.

• If there’s an event that’s intentionally designed to entertain questions from the audience, like the one the Federation and JCRC had July 21, and an audience member asks unpopular questions or makes challenging comments, as one did, then reporting the member’s words is fair game. The challenge is to ensure the proper context; in this case, those comments represented a relatively small percentage of the time and program and were reported that way.

• If there’s a pro-Palestinian rally and a pro-Israel counter-rally, as happened Aug. 3, it is appropriate to report on both and gather information from both. We know there are readers who disagree – we’re a Jewish publication and thus should only report the pro-Israel side – but our view is that covering news is not the same as offering opinion, and showing our readership that there’s anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric in the community, as there is elsewhere, is very important.

Larry Levin is Publisher/CEO of the Light; Ellen Futterman is  the paper’s  Editor.