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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish girls wear face masks during celebrations of the Purim festival in Bnei Brak, Israel, on March 10, 2020. CPJ recently spoke with Laura Adkins, an Orthodox Jewish editor at the Jewish Telegraph Agency. (AP/Oded Balilty)

Q&A: Covering the coronavirus outbreak in the Orthodox Jewish community

By Avi Asher-Schapiro/CPJ Global Tech Senior Correspondent on March 23, 2020 1:15 PM ET

Before the coronavirus outbreak, Laura E. Adkins edited opinion pieces for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a syndicated nonprofit wire service that runs articles in Jewish publications. But as the virus has taken root in a number of Jewish communities in the United States and around the world, Adkins, who is based in New York and is the only Orthodox Jewish editor working at the agency, has played a key role directing the outlet's coverage.

The agency has covered the virus’ effects around the world, from breaking news that 100 people in an Orthodox Hasidic community had tested positive in Borough Park, Brooklyn, to on-the-ground reports from communities in Israel ignoring warnings about large gatherings, to more up-beat stories about how couples are adapting their weddings amid the pandemic.

Adkins, 25, told CPJ that the Jewish Telegraphic Agency has been “all hands on deck” amid the crisis. As journalists, their top concern is getting accurate information out to communities that do not have a traditional relationship with the news media, particularly ultra-Orthodox Jewish news consumers, who may not use the internet or read mainstream publications, she said.

CPJ interviewed Adkins by phone on March 19, 2020. Her replies have been edited for length and clarity.

How has the pandemic affected your work on a daily basis?

Normally, I am soliciting opinion pieces about all facets of Jewish life and practice. But over the last week and a half, it has been almost entirely about how Jewish communities across the world are grappling with the coronavirus—especially Orthodox communities here in New York. It’s all hands on deck; we are all working crazy hours. I am the only editor right now who is active in the Orthodox world.

There are a lot of unique challenges facing the Jewish community, and in particular the Orthodox community, where there's a lot of physical contact—in large families, and in religious rituals—and a virus like this can spread easily. And this is all close to home for us: when the New Rochelle case hit [in New York state], we have a number of staffers who are Orthodox, myself included, who sent kids to school with families who knew the man who was the first known case there. Everyone reporting at JTA lives in some sort of Jewish community; and in that sense, everyone is “on the ground” when it comes to this story.

Do you feel like this is an unprecedented moment for journalists?

Yeah, the only other time that was like this in my lifetime—when all journalists were consumed by one big story—may have been September 11. And I was in first grade.

What are the greatest obstacles in doing this coverage?

Most of our staff have been working inside for over a week now, so the biggest challenge is that journalism is not supposed to be practiced from indoors. We are struggling: how do we see what’s happening on the ground in Crown Heights, or Williamsburg—where Orthodox communities are facing possible outbreaks—when we aren’t able to go there safely?

And although I’d say that it’s a mistake to think the Orthodox world is completely closed off from outside information, or cloistered, the way that information moves is very different. There's not a lot of internet usage. A lot of news travels by word of mouth. People aren’t necessarily reading mainstream publications. The traditional ways of getting information in and out of these communities just don't work.

What are you doing to keep yourself safe?

Besides staying inside, the mental health component is the biggest way we’ve stepped things up at JTA. We are doing a lot of mental health check-ins with people, making sure everyone is OK—since people on staff have been socially isolated for some time.

Has it been difficult getting accurate information about the virus to the Orthodox community?

In some of these communities, there’s a negative attitude around internet use. Things like social media, or visiting The New York Times online are frowned upon. But WhatsApp is big. […] We see that people are often in dozens of WhatsApp groups that function kind of like local tabloids. But there are no editors on these WhatsApp groups; information flies faster than it can be fact-checked.

How do you report in that environment?

It’s not always traditional sources—you may not be asking spokespeople or officials for public health information. For example: I’ll know a gentleman who runs a grocery store, whose brother runs urgent care, and we call him—and he has branches serving Hasidic neighborhoods, and he’ll tell us how many [coronavirus] tests were sent in. It’s more informal.

How are you dealing with misinformation around the virus?

A lot of information being shared on WhatsApp isn't always accurate. So, this week I started my own WhatsApp group, called "JTA Coronavirus News." It’s in both Yiddish [a first language for some Orthodox Jews] and English. I felt like a lot of the information we were reporting on our website needed to be shared with communities that may not be visiting news websites. And, as of today, we already have more than 100 people in the group—most of them are from ultra-Orthodox communities. We’ve pinned a Google Doc to the group, where people can ask questions, like “Where do I get tested?” and "Should I call a clinic before I go in person?"

How do you see those efforts playing out for readers?

Here’s an example: in some communities, people follow directives from a particular rabbi. And these rabbis may make a decision related to the virus—like, shutting down communal baths, or asking people not to gather in big groups to pray. But, it could be slow for people to get the news that this kind of public health decision has been made.

A few nights ago, for instance, the Chabad Lubavitch movement in Crown Heights decided to close its headquarters—this is the first time they’ve ever done this—to help stop the spread of the virus. Let’s say you're a Crown Heights resident, who goes to that building to pray every day. Usually, the way you'd learn of the closure would be either word of mouth, or you’d just show up to the synagogue to pray and read a paper bulletin on the door—that news would spread slowly. So, the WhatsApp group can hopefully help spread accurate news more quickly.

CPJ’s safety advisory for journalists covering the coronavirus outbreak is available here in English and more than a dozen other languages. Additional CPJ coverage of the coronavirus can be found here.

[Editors' note: This article has been changed in its first paragraph to add Adkins' middle initial, and in its seventh paragraph to correct Adkins' recollection of her age during 9/11.]

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