We simply wanted to get everyone around one table.
Dreading the one-year commemoration of the synagogues shootings in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, on October 27, one of the congregation leaders said with exasperation: “The media’s going to do what the media’s going to do, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Rather than taking that statement as a matter of finality or fact, we decided to take it as a challenge.
Both of us worked in local and national news media for years before taking leadership roles at our organizations, and we each have spent time with grieving families, victims of horrific attacks and accidents, and people experiencing the worst days of their lives. It comes with the job.
We know that, in these moments, the media can seem harsh and uncaring—driven by meeting a tight deadline, getting a stronger quote, pressing survivors and relatives to relive painful moments to make the story better, more colorful.
But we also know that most journalists feel emotion in these moments, too. They bury it so they can get the story and quickly share it out with others. However, those feelings rise up at unexpected moments, if we let them. A reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the shootings, spoke with high school students months later, and started crying as she described interviewing one of the survivors.
In our divisive times, we saw an opportunity to overcome misconception and mistrust by bringing people together.
So, we invited people to gather around a table. We wanted people from Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and people from the three synagogues that were attacked in the Tree of Life building to meet with the local journalists who would be covering this story one year later.
Survivors of the attacks worried about reopening fresh wounds and seemed to fear insensitive reporters asking them to relive that horrible day. The media members worried about getting the best story and finding access to the people who would help them tell it.
At first, we expected to have about 15 people around our table. That would have been easy. As word spread, more people started to RSVP. We opened the door to anyone who wanted to be present. Soon, rabbis and lay leaders from all three congregations—Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, New Light, and Dor Hadash—agreed to come. Leaders from the Jewish Community Center and its Center for Loving Kindness, Jewish Family and Community Services, the Center for Victims, and the 10/27 Healing Partnership—which is organizing the commemoration event—all signed up. Each of the congregations has hired a public relations expert, and those people asked to attend, too. Most importantly, victims and family members gathered at the table with the group, and their presence made our conversation deeply meaningful.
At least one person from every major local media outlet asked for a seat at the table, including Pittsburgh’s three network affiliate TV stations, the region’s two leading newspapers, the local NPR affiliate, and local online news outlets.
On the day of the event, we needed a bigger table; one that could seat more than 40 people. Fortunately, WQED, the public television station, had one.
We started with a welcome message—and then a moment of silence. The ground rule was clear: This was to be an off-the-record conversation to allow for the most open and honest exchange. Then we simply asked people to talk. We invited community members to share their thoughts and their concerns. They offered specific advice about the things they hoped to hear—and about what should be avoided. Their insights are relevant for local media, and the many national and international reporters planning to come into Pittsburgh to cover events marking one year also should hear them. The community’s advice:
Respect the community
- Understand that Jews celebrate four major holidays in October: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shmini Atzeret. That will limit media availability for people in the community.
- Remember that the Tree of Life building houses three congregations—Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, New Light, and Dor Hadash. Be sensitive to how you reference the event so as to acknowledge the deep loss for all three congregations.
- Anticipate, predict, prepare. Remember when interviewing those most closely affected by the shootings that asking questions about the day itself risks re-traumatization, as the person must recall those events in their minds. Before conducting an interview, it would be helpful for the reporter to discuss the direction they intend to take and perhaps the question they’d like to ask. Ask them whether any questions or topics should be avoided. Respect the answers.
- Do not enter places of worship and start taking photos or video and interviewing people without prior consent. It is inappropriate and you may be doing it during a sensitive time or worship. Make contact in advance to set up times to be there. It’s improper for reporters to even take notes during a Sabbath service.
- Recognize it is impossible to determine what the entire Jewish community thinks or does. There is a remarkable amount of diversity within the community. No one speaks for everyone.
Tell the right stories
- Amplify the stories the Jewish community wants to tell. People planning the commemoration have adopted the message: “Remember, repair, together.”
- The community would like Oct. 27 to be free from politics. No lobbying for particular policies. The primary focus should be that the attack was an act of anti-Semitism. If you don’t tell the story of anti-Semitism, you’re not telling the story.
- Focus on how the community has grown, emotionally and spiritually over the past year.
Use the correct terms
- It’s OK to use the word “victims” but give thought about how it’s used so that people closest to the attack are not stripped of their status. There are layers to victimization. Realize victimhood also encompasses people who were not injured and who were not in the building that day.
- Avoid use of “anniversary,” a word typically associated with something positive.
- Avoid use of “tragedy,” a word typically associated with accidents and not acts of terror.
Avoid naming the shooter
- Victims and their advocates strongly prefer that media outlets not name the shooter or show his image with their coverage.
As we all sat around one big table, community and journalists saw each other and, more importantly, heard each other. From one human to another. Not as people on opposite sides of an emotionally charged battle over information.
In the days and weeks ahead, as in the months since the attacks, we all will look for moments that unite, rather than divide. We recalled the advice of Fred Rogers as we sat together: You are in our neighborhood; you are all our neighbors.
When national media arrives in Pittsburgh, they will be treated as our neighbors, too.