How Gaza Changed the Rules for Newsrooms

December 20, 2023
November 9: Protesters block the entrance to the New York Times building on Thursday, Nov. 9, in Manhattan, when hundreds of New York City high school students walked out of class to demand an immediate cease-fire in Gaza. (Photo by Barry Williams for NY Daily News via Getty Images)

In the summer of 2021, the magazine Artforum featured a conversation between Adila Laïdi-Hanieh, director general of the Palestinian Museum in the West Bank, and scholar Hanan Tukan. 

Tukan highlighted the unique context that surrounds the museum, where staffers’ houses might be demolished by Israeli forces one day, or employees “might find out their sibling has been arrested or disappeared while picking olives” another. Laïdi-Hanieh added, “Every day, we try to honor the suffering and the incredible denial of dignity, the denial of justice, meted out to Palestinians. We stare this pain in the face.”

The cover story was the brainchild of David Velasco, the magazine’s editor-in-chief at the time. And while there was pushback—“I certainly remember hearing word that Artforum was being seen as too pro-Palestinian and that could be dangerous for us,” Velasco recalls now—he felt secure in his decision, and in his role at the magazine. 

That would change two years later, after Hamas’s surprise attacks on southern Israel. On October 19, less than two weeks after the assault, Velasco signed and published an open letter on Artforum’s website calling for a cease-fire. “There is ample evidence that we are witnessing the unfolding of a genocide in which the already precarious lives of Palestinians are deemed unworthy of aid, let alone human rights and justice,” the letter stated. As of the letter’s publication date, 3,785 Palestinians had been killed by the Israeli military, Reuters reported, citing figures from the health ministry in Gaza. Less than two months later, that number has risen to over 18,000, with Reuters calling it a conservative estimate. 

The initial version of the letter did not mention Hamas’s attack, which killed 1,139 people, including 695 Israeli nationals and 71 foreigners. It’s not like anyone “was cheering for Hamas,” Kate Sutton, then Artforum’s then-international editor, said. 

After widespread criticism, the letter was updated four days later to say the signatories “share revulsion at the horrific massacres” by Hamas. It didn’t matter. A week after the open letter was published, Velasco was fired by the magazine’s new owner, Penske Media Corporation, which had acquired Artforum in December 2022. 

Several editors, including Sutton, resigned to protest his dismissal.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

A few weeks later, Velasco said that “nothing prepared me for the level of pushback that we received.” The Israel-Gaza war, he notes, is “divisive in ways and among communities that previously maybe had some agreement.”

Indeed, nothing in recent memory has riven newsrooms the way this war has. Unlike the George Floyd protests of 2020 or the Russia-Ukraine war, this issue has deeply divided newsrooms and uniquely endangered journalists. 

There are some similarities, especially to protests after a Minneapolis police officer apprehended Floyd over a minor offense, then knelt on his neck for nine minutes until he stopped breathing. Then, as now, journalists scrutinized their long-held standards of independence—particularly those that prescribe an anodyne public disposition, that dictate journalists’ professional work can be seen but their personal opinions should go unheard. 

Nearly all journalists felt Floyd’s death was unwarranted and the police actions were extreme. Similarly, most Western journalists would agree that Russia has unjustly invaded Ukraine. In those cases, the question wasn’t who was right or wrong, but whether journalists could showcase their shared disgust without compromising traditional values and norms. In the case of Floyd, there was also a reckoning across newsrooms, sparking debates about identity and objectivity. Editors were pushed to diversify their ranks and to erase blind spots of bias and underrepresentation of marginalized communities.

None of those shared perspectives seem to apply to the Israel-Gaza war. Los Angeles Times journalists who signed open letters criticizing how American media cover the war and protesting the killing of journalists by Israeli forces have been barred from reporting on it for the next three months. Hearst issued a policy barring its staff from “controversial” posts—including those on their personal accounts—and recommending that they police each other and report lapses to management.

Many journalists feel like they’re not being heard in our newsrooms,” said Kelly McBride, chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute. “And the leaders of the newsroom don’t know what to do with that passion and that emotion, because there’s somebody else who has a different set of passions and emotions. So they’re just tamping it down.

“Many leaders were not prepared for this moment.… And they’ve made mistakes.”

The war has forced managers to balance traditional norms of neutrality with the needs of staff tasked to uphold that image. It has also put freelancers in a precarious position, presenting questions about the extent to which news organizations can control people who are paid piecemeal and are not offered benefits. Adding to the tension: the war has been deadly for journalists, particularly those in Gaza. More than sixty journalists and media workers, most of them Palestinians, have been killed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. 

Arab journalists say they have borne the brunt of this moment. Newsrooms have been indicating that their reputations could be compromised when their people use certain words or go to protests, and that “is just painful,” said Lila Hassan, a New York–based, Egyptian freelance journalist who has written for ProPublica, the Washington Post, and Reuters. 

Hassan noted that Arab journalists are often valued for their proficiency in Arabic, even as their objectivity and credibility are questioned because of their background. Meanwhile, some of her sources in the Arab world believe Western media are biased against them, or they see her as someone who has sold out by working for these outlets. “Some sources will not talk to me if they think that I am working with the New York Times,” she said. 

And then there’s the dehumanizing emotional toll, she said.You’re not even allowed room to grieve, room to experience or to feel. And nobody around you acknowledges that your people are being killed en masse.” 

Hassan has been vocal on X (formerly known as Twitter), sharing posts with terms that most American media avoid, such as “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing.” Hassan reckons she can do this because she’s an asset to her editors, given her fluency in Arabic, sources in Gaza, and experience working with human rights organizations across the Middle East. 

McBride sees why such terms can make editors uneasy. “It’s important to quote people using those words,” she says. “But I don’t think that journalists are in a position right now to determine whether this is the genocide or this is ethnic cleansing.” She notes that it gets especially complicated as Israel has blocked foreign journalists from entering Gaza unless embedded with its military and on the condition that their reporting be reviewed by the government; Israel’s military also says that Hamas has concealed military operations amid neighborhoods where civilians—including journalists—also live, and that, as such, it cannot protect journalists. 

At the highest levels of legacy news organizations, there are mixed signals on what management should do. 

In a May 2023 essay on “journalism’s essential value”—independence—for the Columbia Journalism Review, A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, wrote: “There are also some moral issues that we, as a society, have rightly come to view as settled and beyond reasonable debate: Racism is wrong. Women deserve equal rights. People shouldn’t be tortured. At the same time, there are many related questions society is debating and independent journalism must explore, even if the larger principle is beyond question.

“There can be a temptation to attempt to steer these debates based on our personal views or our sense of how history will settle the matter, thinking that represents a more honest and authentic form of journalism. However, independent journalism, especially in a pluralistic democracy, should err on the side of treating areas of serious political contest as open, unsettled, and in need of further inquiry.”

Just a month before, CJR published an essay with a different take—this one by Wesley Lowery, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter. He wrote, “When the weight of the objective evidence is clear, we must not conceal the truth through euphemism; rather, we should employ direct language. Our aim is not to be perceived as impartial by the people we imagine are our readers, but to accurately inform them about the world they live in.” 

During his six years as Artforum editor, Velasco was known for his bold editorial choices. Velasco accepted the job in October 2017 on the condition he would have “a wider berth of power” to use the magazine’s resources against structures that normalized violence and inequality. His bosses accepted this. 

“David has a natural inclination to challenge existing hierarchies and champion emerging voices, all while upholding our exacting editorial standards,” said Danielle McConnell, an Artforum co-publisher, in a 2019 interview

In the summer of 2020, at the height of Black Lives Matter protests, Artforum posted a call to action to its 1.3 million followers on Instagram. It read, simply: “Defund the Police.” There was an accompanying link to donate to protesters. It offered its pages to artist Nan Goldin to launch a campaign against Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, long accused of triggering the opioid crisis in America. Goldin advocated removing the Sackler name from the prestigious cultural institutions the family had donated heavily to. Artforum published op-eds exposing how Warren Kanders, an arts philanthropist and vice chair of the Whitney Museum of American Art—to which he had donated nearly $10 million—made his money supplying tear gas and body armor to law enforcement and military groups including the New York Police Department and Israel Defense Forces. Kanders would later resign. 

Penske Media, whose publications also include Billboard and Rolling Stone, would turn out to be less forgiving of Artforum’s activism. The company said that the letter should have been reported on as a piece in the news columns, not published as an editorial, and as such did not meet its standards. 

Velasco notes that he was in charge of editorial standards. “I authorized publishing the open letter as a column, so obviously I disagree with the publishers’ assessment. It was my responsibility to position the magazine editorially, and that’s what I did.”

He acknowledges that he had received an employee handbook that included what he called “ambiguous phrasing about mingling personal and editorial views” when Penske bought Artforum last winter. But, he adds, “I don’t think anyone was looking at the employee handbook” when the decision to fire him was made. The handbook’s Business Ethics section states that employees should “act in a way that will merit the continued trust and confidence of the public.”

Velasco believes that his bosses came under pressure from advertisers: “A lot of people were angry. Some people, I think, demanded punishment. Some people just probably wanted an apology.” 

Two weeks after Velasco’s firing, a letter organized by Writers Against the War on Gaza would spark departures at the New York Times. The letter referred to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza as a “genocide” and called attention to journalists who have been killed. It claimed media coverage of the war was “racist” and “revisionist” and demanded that newsrooms not punish journalists for expressing solidarity with Palestinians. On November 9, the group organized a protest in front of the Times building, chanting, “Tell the truth, New York Times, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.” The group distributed a broadsheet that looked similar to the Times with the names of over two thousand slain Palestinians. The nameplate read: “The New York War Crimes.” 

Jazmine Hughes, a writer at the New York Times Magazine and 2023 winner of a National Magazine Award, signed the letter, explaining that she didn’t see a conflict since she covered culture and entertainment, not geopolitics. Still, as Vanity Fair reported, she was forced to resign after the magazine’s editor, Jake Silverstein, said she had violated newsroom policy. Silverstein declined to comment. A Times spokeswoman offered a section of the company’s ethics code: “Staff members may not march or rally in support of public causes or movements, sign ads taking a position on public issues, or lend their name to campaigns, benefit dinners or similar events if doing so might reasonably raise doubts about their about their ability or The Times’s ability to function as neutral observers in covering the news.” 

Hughes says that if she were in her old role, as a Metro reporter, “I’m not sure if I would’ve signed a letter.… The expectations of objectivity were far higher and more germane to the work.” But she had been given, and she expected, more freedom as a magazine writer. 

Hughes added that the Times’ policy wasn’t applied consistently. There was no sanction in 2020, when she participated in protests criticizing a Times op-ed by US Sen. Tom Cotton that called for sending in troops to quash Black Lives Matter protests. Instead, then-editor Dean Baquet hosted town hall meetings where management and staff could discuss coverage. “Those conversations only occasionally felt productive, but they were, above all, respectful: addressing the concerns of a newsroom instead of dissuading them from making them in the first place,” Hughes said. 

When she signed the letter about Gaza, Hughes expected something similar—“that management would recognize the extent of the crisis and start conversations about the ways employees are feeling, and more generally, to begin a long-overdue dialogue about the farce of objectivity. Who gets to be objective? What did newsrooms look like when those ideas about objectivity were put into place, and what do they look like now?” 

McBride, the ethics expert, agrees that newsrooms have been inconsistent, most recently allowing their journalists to be public about their opinions regarding the Russia-Ukraine war because it was clear who the aggressor was. But when they don’t offer the same forbearance in the Israel-Gaza war, it feels discriminatory. “And that’s an argument for consistency. It’s not an argument to get rid of the policies. I think it’s an argument for vigilance and consistency around policy,” she said.

The protests in support of Palestinians, meanwhile, have presented a conundrum for media workers, given that some of the slogans might be interpreted as threatening Israelis with eviction, or Jews with extinction.

“That makes it different for journalists to participate in them because you don’t know what you’re getting into,” McBride said. “Which doesn’t mean that you can’t [go]. It means that it is your duty as a journalist to seek clarity from your newsroom before you do it. It is also your newsroom’s obligation to offer up opportunities for you to get that clarity.”

The reckoning has also been hard on freelancers. James Keiles, a longtime contributor to the New York Times Magazine, signed the same letter that Hughes did. And then he voluntarily resigned—unhappy with how the paper’s policy was applied to freelancers. 

Keiles, who became a Times freelancer in 2015 and was put on a contributor contract in 2019, said it was hard to discern what parts of his life fell within newsroom policy. He wasn’t a staffer with benefits—even though, he says, he worked forty hours a week and for years had a noncompete clause included in his contract. In any case, the Times’ policy for freelancers is strict. A company email sent on December 1, 2023, said freelancers were expected to “adhere to the same standards as Times staff members” and warned that “strident partisan advocacy” could put future assignments at risk. The email did not mention the Israel-Gaza war. 

Keiles noted that his affiliation with the Times had been costing him professionally long before Hamas attacked Israel. Keiles is Jewish and trans and has been writing a book about trans politics for the past few months. He said he has often been questioned by sources about how he reconciles the Timescoverage of trans people with his book project. The paper’s depiction of the Israel-Gaza war was the last straw. Keiles said his work for the Times forced him to “constantly answer for my capability to sources over and over again.” 

Divisions over the Israel-Gaza war have been less pronounced at newer organizations. 

“You just do see examples all the time of basically junior staffers being punished for, you know, quote-unquote speech issues,” said Mark Krotov, publisher of n+1 magazine, which ran an essay in its Spring 2023 issue that criticized the Times’ neutral tone in general. “Whereas older reporters tweet about stuff all the time and somehow it doesn’t apply to them in the same way because they’re tweeting about Donald Trump rather than Israel/Palestine.” 

The matter also seems largely settled at Prism, a nonprofit, independent newsroom launched in 2019 to “inform movements for justice.” In October, Ray Levy Uyeda, a features reporter, drafted an open letter that spoke directly to media workers covering the war, explaining that it is “neither accurate nor objective to frame the fight for Palestinian liberation as an act of unjustified war.” 

Uyeda wrote the letter during working hours at Prism, with the help of the newsroom’s fact-checker and editorial director, even though the letter was not commissioned by the newsroom. 

“I think many if not most of the workers at present understand the grave stakes of what’s taking place in Palestine and the occupied Palestinian territories,” Uyeda explained. Other media workers within Prism signed the letter. 

On October 20, there were calls for a general work strike to bring attention to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. 

Uyeda said the Prism newsroom answered the call. In solidarity with Palestinians, the newsroom made a collective decision to close work early. 

Ayodeji Rotinwa is a CJR fellow.