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Published:May 17th, 2012 10:35 EST
Ethics of Jewish Journalism

Ethics of Jewish Journalism

By SOP newswire

Jewish journalism looks at the deepest issues of life, death, and politics "what we`re covering has real impact on the world at large. " Rob Eshman told a group of young aspiring journalists on November 12, 2006 while he sat on a panel of journalists in the Jewish-American press.  The young journalists, which included yours truly, participated in a track at the Jewish Agency`s annual General Assembly called Do the Write Thing "; a program designed to open communication between Jews studying the profession of journalism and those practicing it. 

The main question posed during this discussion, and many others throughout the four days of the conference, centered on whether we should define ourselves first as Jews or as journalists.  Reflecting on this question during and after the General Assembly, I began wondering what special ethical standards Judaism places upon the journalist.  Seizing this opportunity to research Jewish teachings related to journalistic practices, I discovered a great respect for the word (spoken and written), reverence for truth accompanied by warnings against falseness, and encouragement of actively pursuing social justice for all in light of not only the present world but also for betterment of future generations present in Jewish teachings. 

"God said, Let there be light; and there was light"(Genesis 1:3).  God created the world by proclaiming each and every thing into being.  The power of speech is highly regarded in Judaism for its transformational abilities.  We are taught that, like God, we are granted the power to speak our dreams into reality.  Recognizing the mighty power inherent in speech, God warns in Proverbs: A man`s belly is filled by the fruit of his mouth; he will be filled by the produce of his lips.  Death and life are the power of the tongue; those who love it will eat its fruit."(18:20-21), and "he that guards his tongue preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips, it is his ruin"(13:3).  If one speaks lies, Proverbs teaches, he creates an environment of deceit, which eventually leads to his own downfall. 

Two of the Ten Commandments also forbid lying: You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God; for the Lord will not clear one who swears falsely by His name " (Exodus 20:7), and You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor " (Exodus 20:13).  These commandments, along with the above warnings, demonstrate the sacred nature of speech; man seeks knowledge and trusts others to lead him truthfully.  The search for truth is a major theological component of Judaism.   Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech.  Shun evil and do good, seek amity and pursue it " (Psalms 34:14-15).  

A journalist`s speech, truthful or otherwise, remains open to interpretation and the journalist himself subject to misrepresentation from others.  The great 12th century Jewish thinker Maimonidies noted this phenomenon and advised: "Watch what you say in public. No expression should be ambiguous and admit several interpretations. Otherwise, if there be heretics in the audience, they will interpret your words in accordance with their own opinions, and the students, having heard it from them, may turn to heresy"(Weiss, p.145).  Maimonidies instructs us to prevent misinterpretation of our words and deeds, and misrepresentation of our person by guarding our tongues not solely from lies, but from ambiguity. 

"Justice, justice shalt thou pursue" (Deuteronomy 16:20)

The Babylonian Talmud teaches, Whoever is able to protest against the members of his household, but does not protest, is punished for the transgressions of the members of his household.  Whoever is able to protest against the people of his town and does not protest, is punished for the transgressions of the people of his town.  Whoever is able to protest against the entire world, and does not protest, is punished for the entire world " (Shabbat 54B-55A).  God created humankind in his image (Genesis 1:27), we are His representation on earth: the fulfillment of His desire for a partnership with creation.  Our role in this partnership is to right what we see as wrong in the world around us.  If we deny this responsibility, this honor, and ignore the transgressions of others, these transgressions become our own.  Talmud further suggests that even when we know individuals will not accept our reproof, we should offer it up nonetheless.  For we are not all seeing and all-knowing like God; even if an individual seems unaffected by our reproof of their actions, a seed for change which we have planted in their hearts may some day bloom with or without our knowledge.

So how does Judaism advise we protest against others` actions?  Halacha (Jewish law) instructs first an individual must be confronted privately, and we should attempt to gently persuade him to make amends.  The nature of the offense should not be exaggerated; rather the motivation in writing a story should be the pursuit of truth and to assist those in need of help: the intention should never be to harm anyone.  We are forbidden to publish a story in such a way that causes irreversible damage, the subject of an investigative story should never suffer more harm that he deserves.  If it is possible to correct a situation privately, it is prohibited to make the matter public.  Lastly, the reporter must review his motives and intentions prior to publicizing the article because people`s lives and reputations are at stake.

The checks and balances a Jewish journalist is advised to perform aim to prevent machloket (controversy) at all costs.  Oppenheimer explains, It is forbidden to persist in machloket even if you are in the right and the other individual is behaving inappropriately. "  Machloket breeds hatred and lashon hara, gossip and slanderous speaking or written words.  Lashon hara does not equal untrue statements: true and untrue statements alike spoken behind an individual`s back constitute as gossip and slander by Jewish standards.  One who upholds the ideals of truth and justice, and avoids lashon hara, they can be called a Mench, which translates from Yiddish as good person. "

The last day at the General Assembly, Martin Ben-Moreh addressed the DTWT participants on the enduring nature and utmost importance of journalism: Every event in history happens twice: as it appears to the few people who attend it, and as it is written about and recorded in history. "  Journalists are blessed with the responsibility recording current events, deciding how they go down in history.  Though we strive to tell the truth, we must also realize that we are all burdened with our own schemas, which influence how we interpret current events.  Thus we are never able to tell the truth because there is no one truth, there is only the truth the individual experiences. 

Sometimes we may not want to record events due to the sheer horror surrounding them.  Yet it is our social responsibility, in partnership with God, and in pursuit of social justice for all, to make transgressions known to all.  In the words of Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel: For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and the living.  He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs in our collective memory "The witness has forced himself to testify.  For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow.  He does not want his past to become their future "