In praise of journalistic restraint

Back in May, a Hasidic newspaper in Brooklyn airbrushed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Counterterrorism Director Audrey Tomason out of that photo of a group of White House insiders watching the Osama bin Laden raid. And people freaked out about it. It caused quite the kerfuffle for the paper, Di Tzitung. I thought the media coverage of the incident was fine, but Ira Rifkin left a comment to that post that stayed with me:

While it’s easy to criticize Di Tzitung it’s also beside the point.

Di Tzitung’s readers live in a different world, one far more insular than the world most of us frequent.

Its raison d’tre is not to inform so much as it to support a world view and its community’s religious/social standards.

Think of it as a house organ far removed from the standards of mainstream journalism, just like so many other religious publications.

I thought of it again when reading this fantastic story by the great Ari Goldman in The Jewish Week about the differences between mainstream and tabloid media coverage of the murder of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky and what was found in the Hasidic press.

The article explains how the newspaper Hamodia was on the story from the moment the boy disappeared. But once the boy was found dead, their coverage changed dramatically:

While the tabloids were on the story from the beginning, reporting the disappearance of the boy and the search that was underway, the New York Times came to it late. The Times, which generally shies away from “missing children” stories, did not write about Leiby until he was found dead. Then they pulled out all the stops.

The Times was, to be sure, more understated than the tabloids, but all the gory details of the murder were there. Over the next few days, the paper explored the story from every angle, including a front page report on what the Orthodox community has done in recent years to investigate sexual predators in its midst. Joseph Berger wrote a touching article about the ritual of shiva and Clyde Haberman did a sensitive interview with the father of another celebrated kidnap victim, Etan Patz.

Hamodia’s coverage, on the other hand, was incredibly restrained. An article about Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly’s press conference only suggested the horror without detailing it. “Every piece of information increased the pain within the press briefing room,” the unnamed Hamodia reporter wrote without telling what the information was. “Seasoned reporters – who have heard it all – were visibly shaken by the steady shower of facts.”

There are more examples of this restraint and then an explanation of why:

Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs at Agudath Israel of America and an editor at another Haredi publication, Ami Magazine, said that the restraint shown by Hamodia “was very characteristic” of such papers. “Events may be important, but grisly details are seen as unseemly to write about,” he said. “And what’s more, children read such papers too and there is a haredi reluctance to expose young kids to such details.”

The coverage of the funeral, on the other hand, is vivid. Goldman ends with the following thought:

As I read the restrained Hamodia coverage I thought that there was more involved here than just, as Rabbi Shafran said, protecting the children from the “grisly details.” Hamodia was playing a healing role in the community, much like the mainstream press did in the aftermath of the terrible events of 9/11. Remember back then? The mainstream press refrained from showing certain horrific images, like mangled body parts and people leaping to their death from the towers. The mainstream press also wrote hagiographic tributes to the fallen that made them seem more like heroes and angels than human beings.

In its coverage of the Leiby Kletzky tragedy, Hamodia reminds us that there are times for restraints, limits and self-censorship. Not everything has to be sensationalized. Mainstream journalism can learn something from them.

It was so easy to make fun of a Hasidic newspaper during the airbrushing incident. But I appreciate Goldman's thoughtful analysis of the service newspapers provide to bereaved communities. And I agree that restraint can be a virtue. What do you think?

Please respect our Commenting Policy