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Jerusalem editor explores journalism in Israel

Published: March 25, 2011
Section: News

Photo by Ingrid Schulte/the Hoot

Eetta Prince-Gibson, the editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Report, spoke Monday in Rapaporte Treasure Hall about the obstacles that Israeli journalists face when covering the issues within their own country and explained some guidelines she has imposed at The Jerusalem Report in order to deal with these obstacles.

Although Prince-Gibson has a degree in social work, she left that field to pursue journalism because she felt that it would be a challenge and that she could create more change in that role. She sees both fields as complementary; “Journalism and social work both are service professions,” Prince-Gibson said.

Prince-Gibson explained that since The Jerusalem Report is a bi-weekly magazine, the articles tend to be longer, with in-depth investigative reporting. After working for The Jerusalem Post, a daily newspaper, Prince-Gibson recognizes the importance of both “quick, short and dirty” reporting and the lengthy articles printed by The Jerusalem Report. The Jerusalem Report, as opposed to The Jerusalem Post, prefers to analyze social trends and motivations rather than just report on the basic facts. “The Jerusalem Report focuses a lot more on the social than the political because that won’t be relevant tomorrow in a volatile place like Israel. It changes tomorrow,” Prince-Gibson said. “You need to know [the politics] but you get it from the electronics or the dailies.”

Prince-Gibson tackled five topics that she confronts daily as the editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Report: objectivity, criticism of Israel, the tendency to over-simplify, the use of controversial words and morality.

Prince-Gibson explained that objectivity does not exist and that it is not a goal to be strived for. “There is no such thing as the view from nowhere, from nobody,” Prince-Gibson said. “I can’t tell a writer ‘Be no one from nowhere’—it’s not doable. Views are shaped by what we know, where we stand, what we see. Those of us who think we know what is going on in Iran have to remember that cell phones take pictures in this [front] direction, not that [left] direction and not that [right] direction and not that [back] direction.”

She complained that journalists often mistake fair and accurate reporting with distant and dispassionate reporting. She explained that if the reporters are not passionate about what they are reporting, then they will not dig deeply enough to find people and stories. “Dispassionate and distanced are things we don’t want. You [the readers] don’t want that,” Prince-Gibson said. “If someone didn’t care about medical malpractice, then we wouldn’t know about people being abused.”

Prince-Gibson identifies herself as a “feminist, Israeli, progressive Jew, Zionist, working mother, wife [and] friend” and believes that this does not prevent her from remaining unbiased but helps her to see the nuances of her stories. “When my children were younger, I noticed if young children were at a demonstration,” she said. “I see soldiers differently now that my daughter is in uniform.”

In order to avoid confusing passion with bias, Prince-Gibson tells her reporters to reconsider their story’s worth. She reminds them that “just because I care doesn’t mean it’s worthy.” She also asks them to bring doubt to every story; “I tell the interns ‘Doubt if your mother says she loves you. I want it confirmed by at least two sources and Wikipedia doesn’t count as a source.”’

Another problem she and The Jerusalem Report face is that sometimes remaining fair forces them to criticize Israeli policy, which is often misconstrued as criticizing Israel as a whole. Prince-Gibson’s policy at The Jerusalem Report is that you can criticize Israel but not its right to exist. “We are overly sensitive in the Jewish community to criticism of Israel because we sometimes see it as criticism of Israel’s right to exist,” she said. “We can be critical of our country at the same time that our country is criticized.”

Prince-Gibson conceded that, as Israelis, she and her reporters feel connected to Israel and therefore find it difficult sometimes to be critical. “We’re taught to feel connectedness and responsibility to the state,” she said. “We want to feel safe and secure and comforted; it is hard when it feels like your country is being attacked.”

While the urge to protect Israel from journalistic criticism is sometimes strong, Prince-Gibson always stops to consider if the criticism is necessary. Prince-Gibson becomes irritated when an Israeli news source criticizes the rest of the world and the Palestinians but has only nice words for Israel. “We will not be apologetic for Palestinians or the state of Israel. Are they wrong? Are we wrong? And yes, we say ‘we’ and ‘they.’ We are an Israeli paper,” she said.

Another way that The Jerusalem Report remains faithful in their reporting is by avoiding simplistic ideas and analogies. Prince-Gibson explained that politics in Israel are contentious, resulting in many sides to each discussion. She tells her reporters, “Try not to use ‘but,’ use ‘and.’ Just because one person says ‘yes,’ another doesn’t necessarily say ‘no.’”

Prince-Gibson said that it is a journalist’s responsibility to explain what is happening in an intelligent way that does not confuse simplified with simplistic. “We will not pander to or comfort our readers,” she said. “We’ll simplify but we won’t dumb down, won’t use simplistic analogies.” Relating The Jerusalem Report to competing news sources, Prince-Gibson continued, “We do not equate Jews settling in Arab places with African-Americans settling into white neighborhoods. One is civil rights; one is nationalist. It’s different.”

While discussing The Jerusalem Report’s use of controversial words, Prince-Gibson asked for audience participation. She gave them information and asked for a headline. The story she told was that a man walked into a cafe and blew himself up; now 16 people are dead. After people suggested saying that a “man” blew himself up or that there was a “suicide bombing,” Prince-Gibson jumped back in.

“We call him a terrorist,” she said. “We use it in one way only—Israeli, Palestinian, Martian—anyone who goes into a public place and wantonly murders a bunch of people is a terrorist. We use the word. The Washington Post does not; they use ‘militant.’” Prince-Gibson then lambasted CNN for using phrases like “allegedly,” “according to” and “were killed” in reference the murders of the five members of the Fogel family in Itamar on March 11. “The people who slit the throat of a three-month-old baby were terrorists,” she said.

Prince-Gibson attached an addendum to using the word “terrorist,” however, while discussing moral absolutes. “An 11-year-old brandishing a gun did not make an independent choice,” she said. “We don’t think children are terrorists; we think they can be abused and turned into terrorists.”

While it is important to provide a complete discourse, “there are views we don’t print and we are open about it,” Prince-Gibson said. “There are moral absolutes. Gender equality is not up for grabs, religion is not up for grabs, human rights, minorities. We credit all denominations of Judaism. We call women rabbis ‘rabbis.’ Not everyone agrees with thinking women can be rabbis. We don’t care.” She reminded the audience, however, that while some things, such as child abuse, are moral absolutes, other things that some people find reprehensible are not considered reprehensible to others. “We hold [everyone] to the same moral standards; everyone is treated equally on their own merits,” Prince-Gibson said. For example, when writing an article on Palestinian honor killings, Prince-Gibson interviewed a Palestinian woman to make certain that she was not imposing her own thoughts and feelings on the issue.

In everything she does, Prince-Gibson seeks to promote “peace journalism,” which she defines as good, thoughtful journalism that looks for solutions to problems. She said, “Peace journalism is simply quality, journalism that goes beyond ‘if it bleeds it leads.’”

The event was presented by the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, Women’s Studies Research Center and Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and co-sponsored by the Interfaith Chaplaincy; International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life; J Street U Brandeis; Journalism Program; Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department; Office of the Provost; Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence Program; Schusterman Center for Israel Studies; and Women’s and Gender Studies.