Reporters at The Los Angeles Times were banned from covering Israel’s war in Gaza after they signed an open letter that criticizes the English-language press’s coverage of the violence there, and condemns Israel’s killing of journalists in the territory. According to multiple sources at the Times, management claimed that signing the letter was a violation of the paper’s ethics policy, and banned anyone who had signed the letter from covering stories related to Gaza for at least three months.

Newsroom sources have told Los Angeles Public Press that Times workers have articulated their concerns with the ban in internal Slack messages and in at least one meeting with LA Times Executive Editor Kevin Merida. They say they plan on delivering a letter to management, asking them to reverse their decision to ban the 38 journalists who signed the open letter on Gaza coverage. 

LA Public Press spoke with five Times journalists who signed the letter back in mid-November — interviewing three of them on background (the journalists who agreed to speak only did so under condition of anonymity, for fear of reprisal). LA Public Press also received screenshots of internal company Slack (a messaging software) messages. Workers describe an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty around the newsroom over speaking out on issues with Gaza coverage at the paper.

The current conflict in Gaza began on Oct. 7 when Hamas soldiers crossed into Israel in a surprise attack. About 1,200 people were killed in that attack and 240 kidnapped, according to the Israeli government. Israel’s subsequent invasion and bombardment of Gaza has killed almost 16,000 people, according to Palestinian Health Minister Mai al-Kalia — including 63 journalists. More than 1.8 million people are displaced, and recent reporting from the region indicates that the Israeli government wishes to remove the remaining population from Gaza, qualifying this as a genocide or ethnic cleansing. Then on Nov. 9, a group of journalists penned an open letter criticizing this news coverage, and in subsequent days reporters at the LA Times signed the letter, along with dozens more across SoCal. Then in mid-November LA Times management announced the banning.

(Four members of Los Angeles Public Press have submitted the form to add their names to the letter, including the author of this article. The organization running the letter takes some time to confirm the signatories’ identities.)

But the reporters at the LA Times who spoke with LA Public Press dispute management’s claim that signing the letter violated the LA Times ethics policy, as the policy contains no prohibition against open letters at all. They also argue that the letter argues for unbiased coverage and that condemning the killing of journalists is not a political statement.

A review of the Times ethics policy by LA Public Press confirms that there is no prohibition of open letters explicitly stated in the policy. In the past, LA Times journalists have signed open letters without reprisal, including a 2021 letter also criticizing coverage of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, as well as a letter from the LA Times Black Caucus in 2020 criticizing the treatment of Black journalists at the paper, and its coverage of “the movement for Black lives.” LA Times journalists also frequently express political opinions in public, including on Twitter (now X), without any punishment.

LA Public Press reached out to Hillary Manning, LA Times’ vice president of communications for comment. Manning did not address the reporters’ viewpoints about the letter on the record, but responded with the following statement:

“We do understand the concern from readers and members of the community. We’re proud of our coverage of the Israel-Hamas war. Our coverage has been robust, well-rounded and sophisticated, ranging from perspectives in Los Angeles to reporting from Israel and Gaza. We encourage anyone who’s concerned about our coverage to evaluate it on its own merit and contact us with any questions.”

Matt Pearce, president of the LA Times Guild’s parent union, Media Guild of the West, told LA Public Press via email that Media Guild’s executive committee is meeting tonight, Dec. 5, to discuss how newsrooms have treated dozens of union members who have signed the open letter.

“This is an issue that has popped up across several newsrooms represented by our local, and our members have, among many issues, raised strong concerns about confusing, inconsistent, opaque and unequal interpretation and enforcement of the rules, especially at LAT,” said Pearce.

The Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations also wrote to Executive Editor Kevin Merida in opposition to management’s decision, contending that it “may inadvertently stifle the free exchange of ideas and hinder the public’s access to a diversity of ideas.” The organization asked him to reconsider the decision.

The LA Times ethics policy states that readers “should not be able to discern the private opinions of those who contributed to that coverage, or to infer that the newspaper is promoting any agenda.” The policy calls for LA Times reporting to be “non-ideological,” calling on staff to recognize “own own biases and stand apart from them” and “examine the ideological environment in which we work, for the biases of our sources, our colleagues and our communities can distort our sense of objectivity.” 

But Times staff members who spoke to LA Public Press argue that the letter speaks up against an existing bias among Western media outlets, which it contends “has served to justify the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians” and “[ignores] Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.” The letter argues that “double-standards, inaccuracies and fallacies abound” in coverage of Israeli atrocities against Palestinians and calls on outlets to not shy away from using terms like “apartheid,” “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” or quote genocide experts to accurately describe what is going on in Gaza. 

The letter also condemns Israel for killing journalists in Gaza, as well as their family members, and calls on the Israeli government to stop. LA Times sources argue that speaking up for their colleagues isn’t a controversial statement, especially given the journalism community’s calls for the release of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, detained in a Russian prison since March.

The news that the LA Times had limited “nearly a dozen” journalists from Gaza coverage was first reported on by Maxwell Tani at Semafor. LA Public Press received a list of LA Times signatories that totaled 38 journalists. One source estimated that nearly half of the staffers of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) descent have been banned from coverage and that staffers of color were also disproportionately affected. The source called this a “discriminatory decision.” 

Suhauna Hussain, a labor and business reporter at the Times who signed the letter, noted on the social media platform X (formerly Twitter), that taking those who signed off coverage “in effect removes a great many Muslim journalists and most of [sic] not all Palestinians at the LA Times from coverage.”

Sources have mixed feelings about LA Times’ coverage of Gaza, with some pointing out that it’s the only major newspaper in the U.S. to have its editorial board call for a ceasefire in Gaza. However, the LA Times journalists who spoke on background, also pointed out issues with dehumanizing language, an imbalance of voices and double-standards, such as reporting the number of Israelis killed in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks without attribution in various articles, while the number of Palestinians killed in the Israeli bombardments was consistently attributed to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Sources also complain that the coverage ban has sown confusion over whether they can and should continue to point out these issues. They also argue that it diminishes the paper’s ability to pursue stories without perpetuating the biases pointed out in the open letter.

Some signatories to the letter were taken off stories that were in-progress and special projects about the war. One of them, known as the “Gaza Voices Project,” is intended to chronicle the obituaries young Palestinians are writing about themselves, to be read on social media if, or when, they are killed by Israel. The project is still going forward, but many reporters with the language skills, cultural competency, and contextual knowledge necessary (for example, to help search for these obituaries since there is no hashtag that points to them clearly) to guide the project are banned from doing so.

In a statement to LA Public Press, Council on Islamic Relations-LA Executive Director Hussam Ayloush said the decision “disproportionately censors Palestinian, Muslim and Arab journalists whose insights are key to informing newsgathering and building trust in the community,”

“The LA Times has worked to reckon with its past of racist coverage and communities of color, including Black, Latino, and Asian communities, but this decision threatens to undermine that trust and calls into question the LA Times’ credibility in reporting on Gaza.”

Since management barred reporters from certain coverage areas, one source says there’s been a chilling effect in the newsroom: “As a human being, what’s worth raising your voice about? What are the consequences going to be if I do?”

Another source said more severe punishment is implied if journalists continue to speak out about Gaza coverage. “This is a clear example of the ‘Palestine exception,’” they said. 

A recent update to the open letter states that more than 30 journalists asked to have their names removed “fearing reprisal from their employers.” This includes other newsrooms in Los Angeles.

Almost 1,500 journalists have signed the letter since its publication Nov. 9. They join the broader public in criticizing how American and other English-language publications have traditionally covered issues in Israel-Palestine with a bias towards Israel.

There has been discussion within the LA Times over whether the letter does make political statements by advocating for journalists to use terms like “ethnic cleansing,” “apartheid” and “genocide.” The letter points out that since these terms have been used by experts, journalists should use them too to accurately describe what’s going on in Gaza, otherwise “contorting our words to hide evidence of war crimes or Israel’s oppression of Palestinians is journalistic malpractice and an abdication of moral clarity.”

United Nations experts continue to characterize the violence as a “genocide in the making, while genocide scholar Omer Bartov, a Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Brown University, has called the situation “a clear intention of ethnic cleansing.” Raz Segal, who directs the Master of Arts in Holocaust and Genocide Studies program at Stockton University, has gone further, writing this is “a textbook case of genocide.” Human rights organizations B’tselem and Amnesty International have also used the term “apartheid” to describe Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

The article has been updated to clarify that an LA Public Press review of the LA Times ethics policy found that the policy does not explicitly prohibit the signing of open letters. The LA Times ethics policy does not explicitly discuss whether the Protect Journalists open letter shows political bias.

Phoenix Tso is a journalist with a passion for hyperlocal storytelling. She is usually on the search for coffee, new food to try, or a nature walk.