Ethics in journalism never struck me as a contradiction in terms. Yet it seems like every time I tell someone what I do for a living, they snicker and make a wisecrack about fake news and the moral depravity of reporters.
So when Rabbi Shlomo Agishtein of the Stony Brook Hebrew Congregation invited me to speak to members of his community about journalistic ethics, specifically as they relate to publishing a Jewish newspaper, I considered it an opportunity to defend my profession and made the trek to Long Island.
The crowd, a mix of long-time community members and undergrad and graduate students from the university, laughed when I said that my professor, mentor, and friend Samuel G. Freedman frequently ended our classes in journalism school by telling us that we were doing the Lord’s work. Truthfully, my classmates and I laughed at this as well. But in the years since, and with the experience I’ve gained over that time, I’ve come to understand that his use of that maxim should be taken with the utmost gravity.
Let’s put aside for this discussion human interest stories, features on culture, sports coverage, or other topics that, most of the time, are not particularly controversial. I’d like to focus here on hard-hitting stories, the kinds which, in one way or another, require journalists to call some organization or individual out in a critical way.
There’s a perception that journalists will nonchalantly throw out accusations faster than you can say “Pulitzer,” unburdened by the negative impact they may have with a few misguided taps on a keyboard, or even a 280-character Tweet.
Perhaps that’s how it is for some of my colleagues, but for the vast majority, it couldn’t be further from the truth. For one, there are serious consequences for the reporter who gets it wrong. Just consider the plight of Brian Ross, ABC’s former chief investigative reporter. In December 2017, Ross tweeted that Donald Trump had instructed Michael Flynn to make contact with the Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign. In fact, Trump had only directed Flynn, who would soon serve as national security adviser, to make contact with the Russians after the election had been decided. After issuing an apology and retracting the story, ABC suspended Ross and, a few months later, cut ties to the reporter, who had been with the network for 24 years. Moreover, the actual story — which was not insignificant — was overshadowed by the erroneous report and gave ammunition to those in the Fake News camp.
Also, getting a story wrong (and often even getting it right) can result in lawsuits against the reporters’ news organizations, and sometimes against the reporters themselves.
But for a journalist with an ounce of integrity, the potential consequences to one’s career are secondary. Rather, our greatest concern — after ensuring accuracy—ought to be whether publishing the article is worth the potential harm it could do to those who are at fault.
Inside a newsroom, it’s easy to forget that our words can have a dramatic effect on an individual’s career, family life, or even freedom. Take some of the stories NJJN has published in the last year about alleged sexual abuses against women and children by major players in the Jewish world or respected members of our communities. Even after they were sure of the facts, the reporters and editors often agonized over whether the alleged offenses were enough to damage even a guilty person’s life, and if exposing these misdeeds will open old wounds for the victims.
Another consideration is how such a story will affect the local community. Often the accused individual is well-known and respected, a teacher or leader who has brought people together and inspired Jews to better themselves, to feel closer to God. Will these revelations undo all the good they’ve done over the course of their lives? And invariably, by publishing these allegations, Jewish newspapers are lambasted for engaging in lashon harah, evil speech, and for committing a chilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name, by telling the world about the individual’s transgressions.
These questions should and do give us pause before we decide to publish. But keep in mind that the risk of not going forward is that if we don’t hold the individual in question accountable, he or she is likely to do harm again. By keeping quiet, we would be responsible for future hurt incurred on the innocent by this person; it’s not easy to live with the knowledge that an unpublished report could have helped protect the victims — and prevent future victims.
As I told the folks in Stony Brook, quality journalists aspire to do good for society by exposing wrongdoing and injustice. We don’t go into this line of work for the big bucks or even respect — sadly, much of the country, including our president, considers us “enemies of the people.” And unless your surname is Woodward or Bernstein, readers may remember the newspaper that printed your story, but not that you were the one who broke it.
With it all, though, and even though we sometimes fall short, we are always trying to do the Lord’s work.
Contact Gabe Kahn via email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or Twitter: @sgabekahn.