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The reader over your shoulder
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The reader over your shoulder

I often get notes or phone calls asking if we plan to cover one story or another. Some callers offer tips of the “in case you haven’t heard” variety, but others ask why we or other media are “ignoring” a story. The latter callers assume we are biased, that we knew full well about this administration policy or that Israeli outrage, and that we are conveniently suppressing the news.

My response usually begins with our limitations: We’re a weekly paper with a small staff and finite space. We get our national and international news from JTA, the Jewish news service, and it’s possible that with their small staff and limited resources, they didn’t report the story. And finally — assuming my listener is still awake — I explain the fascinating technical reasons why a story that broke on a Wednesday (after we’ve already gone to the printer) didn’t make it into one week’s edition, but ended up being old news by the time the next edition rolled around.

And then I say the dog ate our homework — because while all of the above is true, it’s hard to defend yourself against charges of bias without sounding defensive. “Bias” is to journalism what “racism” is to the body politic — perhaps the worst thing you can be accused of. All of us have biases, but we try to keep them out of the paper, or at least control for them when we make what we hope are unbiased decisions.

At least, that’s what we tell ourselves. In truth, we are biased, and at times bias shapes our decisions. It’s not a simple case of liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat (although it can be). Our decisions are sometimes based on our own interests or pet topics, or those we think matter more to this community of readers than to others. Sometimes we assign a story based on the talents of a staff member, knowing he or she does a better job with a human interest story, say, than with a financial or political investigation. That’s a judgment call, not bias.

When I became editor of NJJN, I made a conscious decision to reduce the amount of space we devoted to Israel and overseas stories and expand our focus on local news. It was a pragmatic decision, not a political one: Readers can get a full diet of Israel stories from a range of other reliable sources, including Israeli newspaper websites and foreign policy journals. Meanwhile, if we don’t cover our local Jewish communities, no one else will. Filling this niche provides an essential service and distinguishes us from other media.

And yet, I realize, even nonpolitical decisions have political repercussions. Key issues don’t make it into the paper or aren’t given the full treatment they deserve (which is one reason we send out a weekly e-newsletter called “Responsive Reading,” which features pro and con op-eds on the week’s hot issues. You can subscribe at njjewishnews.com/signup). An editor’s decision can shape an argument by omission as well as commission.

That was the issue in an exchange between two Israelis, a journalist and a right-leaning activist, at the recent annual convention of the American Jewish Press Association. Chemi Shalev, New York correspondent for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, had been invited by my colleagues and me to give a session on U.S. and Israeli politics. In the Q-and-A that followed, David Bedein, whose Israel Resource News Agency tries to get Israeli and foreign journalists to focus on Palestinian transgressions, asked Shalev why Ha’aretz doesn’t report on anti-Israel incitement in the Arabic-language Palestinian media.

Shalev replied that to most Israeli readers and reporters, stories about Palestinian incitement are “dog bites man” — so typical they stop being thought of as news. Given the plain fact that no newspaper covers everything, he said his editors make choices based on what they feel is the most significant news of the day, and that Ha’aretz is interested in news, not “hasbara,” or propaganda. Shalev acknowledged that Bedein would make different choices if he were editor.

Shalev’s answer was thoughtful — and certainly more nuanced than Bedein would subsequently report in a news release with the inflammatory subject line, “Journalist Admits Fraud.” The journalists in the room nodded at Shalev’s remarks, recognizing the times we and our readers disagreed over which stories demanded the most attention.

And yet readers like Bedein have a point when they complain about what doesn’t make it into the news. Ha’aretz is probably not the best test case in this regard, since Israel’s newspapers are more consciously ideological than is the norm in America. But even when we editors make pragmatic decisions about what gets in and what doesn’t, we are shaping the argument.

What’s demanded is a little humility and empathy on both sides. Activists and readers should be aware of the limitations of any media and how those limitations only grow the farther you go down the media “food chain.” And journalists should acknowledge the ways they shape perceptions even when they don’t mean to, and take stock when they can. The first step is to listen to what readers are saying, without getting defensive.

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