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The Jewish Report Editorial

A community newspaper in the face of scandal

  • Vanessa
I have been at the helm of the Jewish Report for a mere seven months and have already faced the dilemma that editors of many community publications face - the arrival of a few potentially scandalous or explosive issues and the dilemma of how to or even whether to cover them
by VANESSA VALKIN | Jul 29, 2015

If we were an ordinary newspaper like the Washington Post, our reporters would cover instances of abuse, infighting, theft, philandering, or corruption with the fervour of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein writing about the Watergate scandal.

That is endemic to the true spirit of journalistic integrity. My professor at journalism school in Chicago often implored us to be brave and said that one was only a good journalist when one had really ruffled the feathers of the public figures that were covered in the news.

But a community paper like the SA Jewish Report requires a complete paradigm shift. We are not writing about a world out there that we are exposing for behaving badly; by virtue of our involvement and connection to community members and leaders, we are a part of the community system. 

This means we sometimes have a vested interest in protecting our structures from appearing scandalous to the outside world whether our community’s actions justify exposure or not. And sometimes, we have an interest in protecting Jewish individuals from being exposed to the rest of South African Jewry. 

My esteemed predecessor, Geoff Sifrin, says that in the many years he was editor, he was, on some occasions, harassed with abusive phone calls and threats to shut down the paper. 

Sometimes, he was accused of being part of the conspiracy of silence and at other times, he was told the paper was nothing more than a sensationalist, anti-Jewish tabloid. Sifrin says it was for him a very delicate balancing act where one had to make a judgement call in each case of whether to expose controversial or scandalous material. 

Jewish newspapers like New York City’s The Forward which covers a Jewish community of some six million across a huge country, can cover scandals like the “mikveh peeping rabbi” in Washington, DC with a cool, calm distance.  

For us, amid a tiny community of some 75 000, when trouble lurks, we are often asked by interested parties to be cautious and consider all the consequences and ramifications and all people affected, before exposing the issue.

This is not always a bad thing. In one particular institution where abuse of a sort occurred a long time ago, we were recently asked to hold off until the organisation has done their own investigations so that no-one is harmfully exposed on incorrect information or before the wronged victims have decided how they want to proceed.

This is where our dual role of being gatekeepers of information as well as caretakers with a sense of responsibility to the community has to be weighed against the pure and important goal of reporting the truth. 

Our aim is not to just serve up juicy bits of impropriety for headlines, but instead to consider whether it is in the community’s best interests to know. But this does not mean we will be complicit in hiding facts when they should be exposed! That weighing up is by its nature a very subjective process and all I can promise is we will sometimes get it wrong. 

My belief is that we make our decisions based on the assumption that the community has a right to know about misconduct within communal organisations and institutions, and about the misbehaviour of high profile community members when it affects others. But they don’t have a right to know about every spat within communal structures, nor about the misfortunes or improprieties of individuals.  Sometimes it’s best to leave that to their lawyers. 

Ultimately, a community paper has a vital role in fostering discussion and debate when issues should be raised and dealt with to create an evermore mindful and conscientious community. We hope that we play that part with both verve and integrity.

 

                                                                      – Vanessa Valkin, Editor

3 Comments

  1. 3 Roni Witkin 29 Jul
    An excellent article which says what sometimes can't /should not be said. Roni
  2. 2 David Abel 30 Jul
    The way to go, Vanessa!

    David Abel
    Former Assistant Editor
    Johanessburg Jewish Herald
  3. 1 James 02 Oct
    People who don't read newspapers are not a complete people the newspaper tell us all the news of our country as well as all our the world. essay writing services review

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