You don’t want reporters to write what you want to read

A study last year found that being a reporter was nearly the worst job one could hold. The pay can be bad, the hours tough and the public often grueling and insensitive. Being a Jewish journalist – especially and Orthodox Jewish journalist – comes with its own set of challenges. With every article, one has to ask herself, “Is it for the greater good?” “Does this constitute lashon hara [evil speech]?” “Kiddush Hashem [Sanctifying God’s name]?”

But somehow, despite my selling my breaking news, investigative, enterprise reporting soul to the corporate world, I just cannot get rid of the reporter bug. I continue to freelance because I love to write. I keep learning because I crave knowledge. I interview sources because the diverse and deep stories of people feed my soul.

I also continue because I think that journalism is dying and I refuse to be a part of the shift in the field that is becoming our society’s nightmare, to be one of those writers that drops a biased, baseless sound bite of a story just to fill the breaking news section of a website or a magazine. I still believe that the world is not black or white, but gray, and that deep down people want to dive into that gray and immerse with a new perspective on the subjects, people and politics that interest them.

Society needs reporters that:
• ask tough questions
• research
• learn from everyone they talk with and
• talk with people with variant opinions.

Writers wordsmith. Reporters report. Journalists do both.

I woke up to an email from a source I used in a recent article. He did not accuse me of misquoting him. In fact, he said the majority of my article was well-done. But he was “angry” that I shed light on a questionable aspect of the life of the renowned rabbi I was profiling. In his letter to me he wrote, “When you called me I only cooperated because I thought I knew you and could trust that you would not defame the legacy of such a good, holy rebbe. … You may try to justify yourself by claiming, as a journalist, to include both positive and negative testimonies to allow the reader to arrive at the ‘truth,’ but, as a Jew you have a responsibility to your God to be sure that what comes out of your computer complies with the standards of Torah and Jewish ethics.”

He concluded his letter by letting me know he no longer trusts me and that our relationship is over.

It hurt, and I will not link to the story here so as not to prolong the discussion on this particular rabbi. But it did not hurt as much as the reality that I made a grave mistake in writing that piece the way I did. Because as I started my research, I found multiple testimonies against this rabbi, I found rabbis of equal renown to the subject who held allegations against him, sources willing to go on the record against this figure. Because I knew what people wanted to read, because I myself do not want to believe those sources (and I am still not sure that I do), I chose not to pursue that angle but instead to pen the largely celebratory piece expected of me, one that I could sleep with.

No one wins. No one won.

You don’t want reporters to write what you want to read. You want them to be willing to put themselves on the line to bring you the full story.

I don’t mean muckraking or sensationalist articles. Not everything needs to be written. But I do mean telling the truth – or at least searching for it. While I believe deeply in a Higher truth, I also believe that there are 70 faces to the Torah. Humans are human, which means they have imperfections. When we are willing to look at humanity’s many faces and ideas and ideals, we learn and grow; that is so important. At least that is so important to me.

In November, I will accept two first place Rockower awards at the American Jewish Press Association conference in Maryland. I won a first place Rockower for social justice reporting, for telling the story of a woman who 20 years after she was raped came to Baltimore to attempt to prosecute her perpetrator; there is not statute of limitations in Maryland for rape.

My readers saw the finished product (the article), they did not see the tears I shed nightly thinking of the victim, who I had to personally interview and question – more than once. They did not see me wading through online photographs of my own molester – for hours in the middle of the night – for her story brought so much of my own story to the surface. They did not know about the conversations with the rabbis, or the consultation I received from the abused women’s center in the area to bring that story properly and affectively to light.

But when the article ran, new women came forward, other victims. And more women now know that it is never too late (at least in Maryland) to come out. And they know that there is a support system in place if they choose to do so.

The award is nice, but the justice that was served from that piece is worth much more than any piece of paper.

The world is not always the way we want it to be. Not everyone agrees with one another. Palestinians and Israelis both suffer. The Orthodox, Conservative and Reform communities are all celebrating God.

We celebrate and suffer in different ways and from different things.

I am sorry that I am not a perfect reporter. I have made mistakes and I will make more.

But I will never stop questioning, never stop learning … and I will never stop writing.

About the Author
Maayan Hoffman is director of international communications for a leading Israeli think tank and an American-Israeli journalist since 1995. She raises her large, blended family a bus ride from the Western Wall.