But while other writers, artists, scholars and academics have criticized media coverage of the conflict, the latest letter — which includes signatories from Reuters, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe and The Washington Post — is notable for exposing divisions and frustrations within newsrooms.
For some of the journalists, signing the letter was a daring or even risky move. Reporters have been fired from some newsrooms for espousing public political stances that could open them to accusations of bias.
But those who organized the newest letter argue that it is a call to recommit to fairness, not abandon it.
“My hope for this letter is to push back on the culture of fear around this issue,” said Abdallah Fayyad, a 2022 Pulitzer Prize finalist and former editorial board member at the Boston Globe, who signed the letter, “and to make decision-makers and reporters and editors think twice about the language that they use.”
“What it comes down to is just asking journalists to do their jobs,” said Suhauna Hussain, a labor reporter at the Los Angeles Times who signed the letter. “To hold power to account.”
Most strikingly, the letter argues that journalists should use words like “apartheid,” “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” to describe Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
While the letter-signers maintain these are “precise terms that are well-defined by international human rights organizations,” there have historically been debates among diplomats, aid groups and participants over when a particular incident or conflict fits the definition of those terms.
Fayyad said he wasn’t calling on newsrooms to adopt those terms for their own descriptions, “but it is a relevant fact to say that leading human rights groups have called Israel an apartheid regime,” he said, just as many news stories note that the U.S. has designated Hamas as a terrorist organization. “That’s the kind of double standard I hope this letter will call out.”
Much of the text focuses on the journalists who have been killed in the month-long conflict that erupted after Hamas militants crossed the Israeli border on Oct. 7, killing more than 1,400 people and taking about 240 hostage.
So far, 39 media workers have been killed, mostly in retaliatory strikes by Israel, according to the latest tally from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
An investigation by Reporters Without Borders determined that Israel targeted journalists in an Oct. 13 airstrike that killed Reuters journalist Issam Abdallah and wounded six others. (Israeli officials have denied that they target journalists and said they are reviewing the incident.) In late October, Israeli military officials advised Reuters and Agence France-Presse that it could not guarantee the safety of their employees operating in the Gaza Strip.
Joe Rivano Barros, an editor at San Francisco nonprofit Mission Local who signed the letter, maintained that there has not been “widespread condemnations of [the killings of journalists] from Western newsrooms.”
“This particular conflict seems to bring in a lot of prevarication in a way that other conflicts don’t,” Rivano Barros said.
The journalists’ letter follows several other open letters in recent weeks, most expressing solidarity with Palestinians. The New York Review of Books published one signed by well-known writers including Ta-Nehisi Coates calling on the “international community to commit to ending the catastrophe unfolding in Gaza.” A letter signed by hundreds of Jewish writers that was published in N+1 magazine said, “we are horrified to see the fight against antisemitism weaponized as a pretext for war crimes with stated genocidal intent.”
A letter published by Artforum and signed by thousands of artists and academics, though, led to the firing of its editor. The magazine’s publishers said in a statement that the letter was “not consistent with Artforum’s editorial process” and had been “widely misinterpreted as a statement from the magazine about highly sensitive and complex geopolitical circumstances.”
And a widely circulated letter titled “Writers Against the War on Gaza,” which has been signed by more than 8,000 writers, condemned “the silencing of dissent and … racist and revisionist media cycles.” New York Times writers, Jazmine Hughes and Jamie Lauren Keiles, signed the letter. Days later, Hughes quit under pressure from management and Keiles left the paper, writing on social media that his was “a personal decision about what kind of work I want to be able to do.”
Open letters have a long history in civil protest, playing a strategic role, said T.V. Reed, professor of English and American studies at Washington State University who has studied protest movements and wrote the book “The Art of Protest.”
“The power [of open letters] is in offering readers names they know and respect to identify with. And/or professions they respect and identify with,” he said. “In this era of social media, where individual commentary is often excessive and harsh, a collective letter thoughtfully conceived can be more powerful.”
The journalist-signed letter raised concerns for journalism scholars and veteran news editors.
Bill Grueskin, a Columbia University journalism professor, said reporters may have more latitude to weigh in on media-related matters like the killing of journalists. But he warned that journalists who sign open letters on political topics risk damaging their outlets and their own ability to gather information.
“I think it’s worth having a real honest discussion in terms of the reputation of the institution they work for,” said Grueskin, a former deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal.
Rivano Barros argued that journalists “can and do criticize governments when they are infringing on press freedoms,” such as the Saudi government for the murder of writer Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and the Russian government for detaining Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich.
“Gazan journalists are facing an unprecedented and rising death toll, Western newsrooms are directly benefiting from their work on-the-ground, and if we cannot call for their protection — that is perverse,” he said.
Steve Coll, a former managing editor at The Post and former dean of the Columbia journalism school, said that journalists who sign open letters could face backlash from management, especially if those newsrooms have rules against activism.
He noted a recent generational split in some newsrooms, where younger employees feel empowered to speak out on political issues — putting them in conflict sometimes with the mores of older journalists, who prefer to stay quiet. “It’s a problem that has to be resolved one way or another,” he said.