Storm Coverage Presents Dilemma
02/04/2013 - 05:07
Steve Lipman
Satellite image of Sandy: Storm presented a challange for journalists. Via NASA
Satellite image of Sandy: Storm presented a challange for journalists. Via NASA

This week’s issue of The Jewish Week includes the latest in a series of stories the paper’s staff has written on the aftermath of Sandy since the Superstorm struck New York, and the surrounding Northeast states, three months ago. This week’s focus, in a report I wrote, is southern Brooklyn – the Atlantic coast neighborhoods like Seagate, Coney Island and Brighton Beach, which suffered a disproportionate amount of flood-caused damage.

In previous weeks, in articles by many of our staff writers, it was Oceanside and Staten Island and Battery Park City and other parts of the city that happen to be home to sizable Jewish communities.

Such articles are the staple of journalism, especially of niche ethnic and religious publications that bring the specialized news that their readers undoubtedly want to know – in the midst of a widespread event like a hurricane or blizzard or earthquake, an event covered extensively by the mainstream newspapers and television stations, how did our community, our neighbors and fellow congregants fare?

Sometimes this presents a challenge to a thinking journalist. How much attention do you pay to the fate of a narrowly defined community without seeming to ignore, or belittle, the suffering of other people? On the other hand, what unique role does a paper like The Jewish Week serve if it merely repeats the news found elsewhere, downplaying what happened to our community? On one hand, we may appear provincial. On the other, we’re not doing our job.

Another Jewish paper that reported on Sandy faced this conundrum. After Sandy struck, one of its articles reported on its long-term affect on certain Jewish areas. The article described the scene in “heavily Jewish oceanfront neighborhoods.”

One reader found this shocking. “This article is very disturbing,” the reader wrote in the newspaper’s website comments section. “Do non-Jews not live in these areas too?” she asked.

The writer went on to castigate the newspaper’s seeming indifference to non-Jewish lives: “Are their lives not worth anything? Or maybe just not as much as our lives?

“Not everything has a Jewish angle,” the reader concluded.

She would have a point – if the greater picture of Sandy’s destruction had not been painted in detail by other local and national media outlets, if the coverage by the Jewish media – this paper’s and the other’s –had not pictured the Jewish situation in terms of the wider context of thousands of New Yorkers of all backgrounds who were suffering.

The New York Times, the TV networks, etc., presented, the macro view. That’s their job; they served a wide readership and viewership. They’re not likely to report in detail on what Jewish organizations were doing to help ameliorate the situation, on how groups like the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty were making life less unbearable for Jewish – and often, non-Jewish – victims of the Superstorm who had lost everything to the flood waters. That’s our job. If we just repeat what you can read or hear elsewhere, then what unique role do we serve?

A niche publication always runs the risk of inordinate provinciality, or of the appearance thereof. One mock newspaper, published some three decades ago by the National Lampoon humor magazine – the “Sunday Newspaper Parody” of the Dacron Republican-Democrat – illustrated this. A front-page article bore the headline: “Two Dacron Women Feared Missing in Volcanic Disaster.” Underneath was the smaller headline: “Japan Destroyed.” And, the first paragraph of the story reported, “Possible tragedy has marred the vacation plans of Miss Frances Bundle and her mother Olive as volcanoes destroyed Japan early today.”

That excessive-focus on what journalists call the local angle is an exaggeration. But that’s how the Sandy reporting by the local Jewish press may have appeared to the other Jewish paper’s critical reader.

That is not why we focused on what was, legitimately, the “Jewish angle” of a regional disaster. If we don’t understand our readers’ needs, we’re not doing our job.

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