Thursday, January 06, 2005

Journalism and Loshon Hara: Some personal reflections [long post]

I don’t have time, really, to write this post, but it’s been on my mind a lot so I may as well get it out of my system.

There’s been some discussion lately on Jewish blogs (links by Allison here) about the issue of journalism and loshon hara. For those not-yet-in-the-know, “loshon hara” is the Hebrew term for (put very simply) any speech or writing that unjustifiably communicates negative information about another person, particularly another Jew. It’s considered a terrible sin, and in fact has a reputation for being the most widely-committed terrible sin. It’s said that to speak ill of another is on par with murdering them. And the excuse that “well, it’s true, after all” doesn’t hold water in Jewish law; the information being true is exactly what makes the speech loshon hara. If it were a lie, it would be “motzi shem rah”—libel or slander—which of course is even worse.

There are situations in which speaking ill of another is considered appropriate, generally where being ignorant of the information would cause someone harm. One is allowed to tell her friend, for example, that the boy she is considering going out with has serious character flaws she should be aware of. One is allowed to warn another that their potential business partner has a history of bankruptcies. And certainly, one may warn another that the babysitter they are considering hiring has a record of child molestation. I believe that a teacher is allowed to speak loshon hara of a child to the child’s parents, to make them aware of behavior problems that can be corrected. However, the details of how the information is communicated is serious business, and one must tread carefully.

So you can imagine that it’s hard for an observant Jew who worries about violating the laws of loshon hara to work in journalism, an industry that thrives on conflict and drama and exposing the serious and not-so-serious sins, mistakes, or trip-ups of public and even private figures. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that when someone writes loshon hara in a newspaper (or in a blog), the information is spread not just to a few people but to dozens, or hundreds, or thousands, or hundreds of thousands. The more people who read the information, the worse the reporter’s sin becomes.

I’ve never actually asked a rabbi for guidance about the issue in general, mostly because I’m afraid of what I’d find out. For example, there’s the article I wrote about the inconsistent rules and bureaucratic barriers faced by immigrants in medical fields when they make aliyah (along with explanations – some even reasonable, believe it or not- by the government about why the situation is the way it is). On one hand, exposing bad things being done by the government is the classic reason that a free society needs journalism. It’s why the press is known as the “Fourth Estate.” I know for a fact that people in the Ministry of Health read my article and were seriously considering the points I made. Perhaps eventually my article will have helped to make life smoother for other immigrants. Plus, if it will help potential immigrants who are nurses, doctors, and physical therapists to make more informed aliyah decisions, increasing their chances of a successful klitah —then “kol hakavod li” (more power to me).

On the other hand, I wrote loshon hara about the State of Israel, something I normally would not want to do. And perhaps what I wrote discouraged some people from performing the mitzva of moving to the land of Israel. Obviously, since I published the article, in my own internal reckoning I decided that the benefits of exposing the problem were more important than the possible loshon hara issues. But would a rabbi agree? I hope so. But I can’t be positive, since I’ve never asked.

The first time I encountered the problem, I was in journalism school and was freelancing a bit for a local paper by covering meetings of local community boards and writing reports of some of the more interesting issues that came up. It was my first “real” writing job. Usually the topics were pretty innocuous and involved matters of opinion for the readers to weigh themselves: a group wants to erect a statue in memory of a certain famous person and the neighbors are against it because it would impede traffic; a building contractor wants to tear down a famous restaurant to build apartments but the neighbors consider the old building an unofficial architectural landmark; a university wants to build a new dormitory and the neighbors would rather the land be used for commercial purposes.

But once, I was asked to write about a certain city council member who had filed a motion that one of the streets near a semi-famous store be named after that store. The community board had voted overwhelmingly (maybe unanimously; I don’t remember) against the idea, citing its ridiculousness (“What? After this we’ll have Woolworth Avenue and Duane Reade Way”) and their belief that the council member was pandering to the moneyed interests of this large store. After the community board vote, I called the city council member (who may or may not have been Jewish; it doesn’t matter to me ethically, but it does matter from the point of view of Jewish law – please, don’t argue about this in the comments, since it’s not the point of my post), who basically concurred with the board that the motion was a mistake, and said she had withdrawn the motion from the council and that “as far as I’m concerned, this is a dead issue.” I also called the owner of the store who had convinced the city council member to try renaming the street, and who was definitely a Jew, who also (if I remember correctly - this was years ago) said that in his mind the issue was over. The community board has no legal power, really, but their discussion had ended the motion before it even got to the council.

The store owner and, more importantly, the city council member had made an error in judgement. But they’d seen the error and agreed it was dumb. And the error wasn’t even serious. After all, the naming of streets doesn’t have an appreciable effect on people’s lives.

But the editor wanted a dramatic story about how this council person had pandered to the business. And not just a small paragraph about it, either, but several paragraphs of flowery, scathing personal attacks on the council person’s panderingness and the business owner’s chutzpah.

The paper was right in a way, but I didn’t think the story was important enough to justify the kind of personal attacks that they wanted, especially since the motion was dead now. But if I refused to write the story, I’d never get work with this paper again, and I was just starting out. I also knew that it would be hard to get referrals from my professors if they found out that I’d quit over something this trivial, especially since what I was writing was true, after all, and about public figures, one of whom was in the city government. In journalism that’s all that really matters. There's no such thing as cutting someone some slack.

Feeling very agitated about it, I called a rabbi, who turned me over to his wife, who also is a writer. Together we figured out a way to write the article that stayed as fair as possible to the parties involved, while still making it somewhat exciting so the editor would be happy. When it was published, I found that the editor had totally re-written the article to make it more scathing (so the facts were intact, but the tone was different), so my name was on a story that wasn’t really mine, but I’d done my best.

More recently, I was asked by a newspaper to write a profile of a certain person who – to keep this as vague as possible – had developed his own method for teaching other people how to do a certain thing, and his students had won many awards and were remarkably successful. I interviewed him – he was clearly very ambitious but overall a good guy-- and got phone numbers of people he’d worked with, when he then started telling me that in fact he is unable to find students these days because of a conflict he was having with a certain other organization. He actually spent an hour telling me all about it, while I took notes in my reporter’s notebook.

Well, this was an important development in the story. I couldn’t very well write about how successful he is without explaining why he has very few students right now. And as I researched it – by, for example, calling this other organization to get their side of the story—it turned out that part of the conflict was caused by an action –again, a fairly innocuous judgement error-- on the part of the guy I was profiling, a fact he admitted when I called him again to ask him about it. Take my word for it that the whole conflict between this guy and the organization was very, very stupid, and had the potential to be solved in short order . . . unless, of course, it was exacerbated by, say, my publishing in a newspaper that he’d complained about the other party.

So here I had a private figure, a small business owner, who had made a stupid and harmless judgment call resulting in his inability to drum up clients, who had then made the further judgement error of complaining about the whole thing to a reporter who was obviously taking notes. The story had gone from “profile of an amazing teacher” to “profile of a talented guy who likes to complain.”

From the standpoint of journalistic ethics, there was no reason not to publish the article. Everything I was saying was true. Everyone I’d interviewed was aware that they were talking to a reporter. No one had used the words “off the record.” I’d been taking copious notes right in front of him.

But from the standpoint of loshon hara, this was a very serious situation. I was about to publish an article that would completely destroy this man’s career. Yes, he’d made mistakes. But I felt—and still strongly feel—that the nature of his errors did not justify humiliating him to the many thousands of people who read this story.

I tried convincing the editor that the story was too insignificant to publish. Unfortunately for me (and for the story subject), it was a slow news week, and there was a problem with one of my other articles as well (another long story of a different nature), and there was literally going to be a big empty white space on the page unless I filled it with text about this poor guy.

To be cynical about it, a journalist’s job is to fill the empty white pages of the newspaper. If the journalist and the readers are lucky, the words will be truly significant and worth the money you paid for the paper. But even if not, the readers expect words to be on their newspaper pages, and so words is what they get. If a newspaper is 32 pages, the staff needs to fill it with 32 pages worth of text (and ads). Not 31. A reporter who doesn’t produce the words is a reporter who does not have work and does not pay the rent.

So I wrote the story. I included as much as I could about his talent and successes, as many accolades from former clients as I could fit in. But there was no way around it: I had to include the conflict and what it was about him that had caused it. The copy editor (a very talented person working under intense pressure that day as well) then gave the story a headline which made him look even more ridiculous. And it did pretty much hopelessly ruin his chances to revive his business. I ran into him later and he told me so.

That experience is one of the reasons that in many ways I prefer freelancing to being a staff reporter. I’d still consider taking a staff job, but one of the great things about freelancing is that I’m more free to turn down topics that might be ethically or halachically problematic.

But not every reporter can afford to freelance. I’m not even sure I can afford to freelance, and am looking for a part-time job in writing or teaching that would get me out of the house every day and provide some sort of steady income. If I get a staff job at a publication, once again it will be on my head to fill the empty white space, and simply hope that I’m able to navigate my way through doing my job in a noteworthy and professional way without unnecessarily ruining other people’s lives.

[Stay tuned for my thoughts on Rabbi Lanner, the Jewish Week, and JewishWhistleBlower – as soon as I get around to it.]

No comments:

Post a Comment