Alan Abbey, director of media and Internet services at the Shalom Hartman Institute, spoke recently about a new report released by the Institute about “Jewish media.” At the outset, he declared: “Jewish journalists and the media they work for are at a crossroads. As both their audiences and the technologies they use are changing rapidly, Jewish media journalists remain committed and optimistic, yet they face challenges.” Why optimistic? What challenges? What’s a “Jewish journalist”? All these have answers in the report, based on a survey of Jewish journalists initiated by Abbey.
I had some concerns related to this survey. And Abbey was gracious enough to address them. For the survey, he sent an e-mail questionnaire to 750 people on the Hartman media list. That list was compiled by hand, with the addition of hundreds of names from the American Jewish Press Association’s past, present and prospective membership lists. He also “asked people to forward it around, and it did receive some play in social media.” All in all, Abbey received 113 responses, which several sources told me is a good response rate for an “expert questionnaire.”
Does this survey represent the Jewish media accurately? Nearly one-quarter of survey respondents identify themselves as Orthodox Jews — that’s much higher than the general Jewish population. But Abbey is “confident the data are representative of Jewish media professionals,” after making some effort to verify its validity. For example, “from about 50 responses on up to the end, I did partial data runs, and overall, responses did not change significantly from 50 to 70 to 100 to 113 responses overall.” That “the group of journalists doesn’t mirror the overall population exactly” is not a surprise. Abbey expected an “older, more educated, and more Jewishly connected” group.
Here are some of the highlights:
• Jewish journalists are highly engaged in Jewish religious life. More than one-third say they attend synagogue at least once a week — that’s a lot. There are many Orthodox, as I mentioned, and little representation for Reform (13 percent).
• Jewish journalists have a deep connection to Israel; they care about it, think it’s meaningful for Jewish identity, travel to Israel.
So, either the survey doesn’t quite represent the Jewish media, because of sample bias (the survey is based on voluntary response on the internet, and there’s no data with which to verify its accuracy). Or Jewish journalists don’t quite reflect the community on which they report and for which they toil.
Of course, that these journalists have “high levels of Jewish knowledge and Jewish self-identification” and that “they are truly committed to Jewish community life” makes journalistic ethics more complicated. How does one report even-handedly on a community to which he is highly committed? Abbey is troubled — admittedly more than I am — by the ethics of Jewish media. “The survey results showed confused attitudes toward ethics among survey respondents and raised questions, at least, about their knowledge of generally accepted journalism ethical standards and their willingness to be governed by them.” Apparently, “survey respondents were more likely than their American counterparts to agree with statements that journalism ethics depend on specific situations and that journalism ethics are a matter of personal judgment rather than a matter of generally accepted standards.”
I’m not sure if the issue here has anything to do with the Jewishness of the media. It’s possible that these are differences of opinion regarding the way people should handle their affairs: a stricter, more formal adherence to “standards” versus a more elusive “personal judgment.” Clearly, the “standards” way is the safer route, but the “judgment” way is more flexible and challenging. If Jewish journalists prefer the latter approach — and as long as they actually think about the ethics of their coverage of stories — I see no reason for much concern.
I was struck by one of the questions in the survey: Should Jewish journalists have a Code of Ethics that takes Jewish values into account? “Survey respondents were evenly divided on whether a Code of Ethics for Jewish journalists should take Jewish values into account,” the report states. But what does it mean to “take Jewish values into account”? I wonder what “Jewish values” respondents were thinking about when they agreed/disagreed with the suggestion for a Jewish “code of ethics” for Jewish journalists.
Last but not least: The report dwells at some length on the question of Jewish media and Jewish “leadership.” Only 40 percent of the journalists “reported that they strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement that the local Jewish community leadership understands and respects the independence of local Jewish media.” In one of its key recommendations, the report says: “Jewish community leaders need education about the need for a vigorous and independent Jewish media.” I beg to differ: One of the key tenets of free media is that it operates without much regard to what “leaders” and “institutions” and “movements” and “organizations” think about it. Being independent means that you don’t care much if “community leaders” respect your independence or not. In fact, it might be better for the relations between the “leaders” and the “journalists” to be somewhat tense. It might be possible that this issue is where the report itself — understandably — starts getting confused, as it doesn’t properly separate between journalism and the established community.
Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor at the Jewish Journal.