Image courtesy of Alan D. Abbey.

 

What is ethical for media and journalists is an evergreen subject. Seminars, programs, university courses, articles, and books continually keep the subject alive. The proliferation of media in the Internet age has complicated the issues journalists face, as technical matters such as photographic manipulation have been added to traditional aspects of media ethics, such as acceptance of gifts, plagiarism, and “fairness”.

 

Ethics matter in journalism for both moral and practical purposes. The first, what Gene Foreman, a writer and speaker1 on the issue of journalism ethics, called “the moral incentive” in his 2009 textbook, The Ethical Journalist, is that “like most other human beings, [journalists] want to see themselves as decent and honest”.2

 

Clearly, this moral incentive should matter for Jewish journalists, as well. The Jewish tradition deeply values ethical behavior and doesn’t permit religious practice to excuse unethical behavior. Rabbi Prof. David Hartman, a teacher of mine at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where I work, and a scholar3 in the field of Jewish philosophy and ethics, once wrote: 4

 

We can maintain the supremacy of the ethical without denying the deep quest for an intimate relationship with God, which is symbolized by prayer.

 

We live with God not only in prayer, but in the way we treat other human beings. That is why the Talmud teaches us that Yom Kippur does not forgive sins between one human being and another; rather, only after you have asked your friend or neighbor to forgive you for your wrongdoing can you approach God in prayer on Yom Kippur.

 

Our tradition never wanted to sacrifice the importance of symbolic, dramatic actions—that is, ritual—as a profound and essential component of the spiritual life. However, regardless of how important ritual should be, it must never make us indifferent to our relationship to and solidarity with other human beings. Intimacy with God should not impair or undermine our deep sense of solidarity with, love and concern for others.

 

The Bible does not begin with the story of God and Israel, or with revelation, but with the creation of the world. The creation story casts us into a universal mode of self-comprehension. Creation is the foundation for the universal solidarity of all human beings.

 

Ethics is an expression of universality. All must be joined together in Judaism. The yearning for intimacy with God must not be a source of estrangement among people. It is through universal compassion that we truly experience the God of creation. Although Sinai separates us from others, creation always brings us back to appreciating and empathizing with all human beings.

 

Foreman’s view that journalistic ethics also has a practical incentive may seem crass, but his argument is that journalistic entities will be successful when the public believes what it has to “sell,” that is, its news reporting and analysis: “In the long term, ethical journalism promotes the news organization's credibility and thus its acceptance by the public.”5

 

Throughout the 20th century, as journalism became a more professional occupation in the U. S. and Europe, the creation of journalism codes of ethics proliferated among journalists’ associations and media companies. A 2011 study identified 242 journalistic codes of ethics in 94 countries6 and found that there was a global consensus that journalists should be neutral and detached from society. The American Jewish Press Association, the umbrella organization for Jewish media in the United States, has its own Code of Ethics.7 The editorial portion of the AJPA ethics code has four components: plagiarism, crediting editorial work, payment practices and attribution of sources. It does not contain a specifically Jewish component.

 

Media codes of ethics are generally not enforceable in a legal sense, and their value has been questioned as being too vague, as discouraging thoughtful decision-making, as public-relations ploys and as simply not being followed.8 Nevertheless, there is a general recognition that ethical practices are necessary components of modern journalism. The intense debates found in the media when ethical lapses are uncovered are ample evidence of that.

 

Of all the journalistic coverage subjected to intense ethical scrutiny, news of Israel, conflict in the Middle East, and anti-Semitism receive their fair share and more. Two examples from 2013—the Muhammad al-Dura case and a prize-winning photo of the death of children in Gaza—can serve. The al-Dura case involves a decade-long battle over whether video footage purporting to show Israeli soldiers targeting and killing a Palestinian boy during the Intifada in 2001 was accurate and honest, or whether journalists were complicit in doctoring video along with Palestinian activists. An Israeli government report in early 2013 concluded that the original French TV station report, which had asserted that the incident was an Israeli Defense Forces killing, was baseless only reignited activists on all sides, with some calling for criminal investigations9 and others calling the Israeli report a whitewash.10

 

The World Press Photo Association awarded its 2012 “Photo of the Year” prize to a photograph of teary and angry Gazans carrying the shroud-wrapped corpses of two children through an alley. The photo, from November 2012, presumably showed the aftermath of an Israeli attack in Gaza during the short Israel-Hamas Missile War of late 2012. Yet there was an outcry over the photo’s veracity. Some claimed that a technical analysis of the photograph showed that the picture was—at the very least—very heavily manipulated by computer software to enhance its dramatic impact, and that it may even have been a composite of several images.11 The photographer acknowledged using sophisticated digital techniques but said his work was within professional and ethical boundaries.12 The World Press Photo Association has stood by its award, but the debate has continued.

 

This combination of a tradition of ethics in the Jewish world, the journalistic drive for ethical standards, and the intensity of debate around Israel and topics of concern in the Diaspora Jewish community, such as intermarriage, suggests a strong need for ethical awareness and informed decision-making by journalists for the Jewish media. Yet the results of a survey of more than 100 journalists for Jewish media conducted by the author in early 201313 (referred to as “the study” below) showed confused attitudes toward ethics among study respondents and raised questions—to say the least—about their knowledge of generally accepted journalism ethical standards and their willingness to be governed by them.

 

The study found that respondents strongly agreed with the statement that “journalists should always adhere to codes of professional ethics, regardless of situation and context.” The intensity of their response to that question was stronger than the average response of journalists in 18 countries measured by the ongoing Worlds of Journalism research project.14 The study respondents scored higher on this question than Israeli journalists surveyed by Worlds of Journalism and only slightly lower than U. S. mainstream journalists.

 

Worlds of Journalism Survey

Statement

Study

18 Nation Average

Israel

United States

Journalists should always adhere to codes of professional ethics, regardless of situation and context.

4.53

4.4315

4.17

4.57

What is ethical in journalism depends on the specific situation.

2.94

3.0016

3.14

2.66

What is ethical in journalism is a matter of personal judgment.

2.36

2.8917

2.28

1.88

Jewish journalists should have a Code of Ethics that takes Jewish values into account.

2.57

     

Answers were on a scale of 1-5, with 1 indicating the least agreement, and 5 indicating most agreement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

However, the potential for confusion crept in when faced with more specific questions. Study respondents were more likely than their American counterparts to agree with statements implying that journalism ethics depend on specific situations and that journalism ethics are a matter of personal judgment rather than a matter of generally accepted standards. They were slightly more likely than Israeli journalists in the Worlds of Journalism survey to agree that journalism ethics are a matter of personal judgment. These responses, while not definitive, suggest a willingness to address ethical questions from personal rather than generally accepted institutional or organizational standards.

 

Survey respondents were evenly divided on whether a Code of Ethics for Jewish journalists should take Jewish values into account. Written responses indicated a generalized awareness of the need for moral and ethical behavior, but they rarely put it in Jewish terms:

 

To uphold universal ethics and values (not just “Is it good for the Jews?”) while still focusing on Jewish concerns (Israel, Jewish culture, the Jewish community), as well as broader issues that may also be of interest to Jews.

 

The questions about ethics leave no room for the journalist to explain under what circumstances he or she would deviate from journalistic ethics.

 

Community media reinforce the message of a particular institution and should not be judged by the same yardsticks as journalism in general.

 

These findings on ethical values, viewed in conjunction with additional study findings indicating that respondents were more willing to advocate and act on behalf of their community than mainstream journalists,18 are significant in drawing a clearer picture of these professionals. They are often unwilling to set themselves apart from their community and feel relatively comfortable with an activist role. As a result, they are more willing to accept the moral burden of making ethical judgments on their own rather than relying on presumably objective standards.

 

Conclusions

 

Jewish journalists travel a challenging road. Jewish thought has taken a hard line against gossip, speech, tale-bearing, and loose tongues from the tradition’s earliest days. A portion of the Torah read in synagogues every year that discusses the negative effects of evil speech—skin ailments sometimes called leprosy—comes one week after a previous section regarding the rules for keeping kosher in one’s consumption of food. A linkage between the two has been claimed by many commentators, with the reason being that what comes out of someone’s mouth is as important as what goes in. 19 The Books of Psalms, Prophets, and Proverbs all claim that speech has such a potential to inflict grave harm that it must be carefully watched and severely punished if transgressions occur.

 

Psalm 34 says: “Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceitfully.” Proverbs 11 says: “He who reveals secrets is a talebearer, but one who is of faithful spirit conceals a matter.” Gossip has been described as having a triple effect: it harms the subject, the recipient and the purveyor as well. On the fast day of Yom Kippur, Jews seek atonement for their sins of the previous year. The longest list of them comes in the “Al Het” prayers, which are repeated 10 times throughout the fast day. According to one rabbinic expert, problematic speech and gossip crop up more than any other single transgression and account for fully one-quarter of all of the scores of sins cited by penitents.20

 

More troubling for Jewish journalists historically: in Jewish tradition the truth of a tale didn’t necessarily provide protection for the talebearer. In fact, an axiom of English Common Law dating at least to the 1600s-the greater the truth the greater the libel-may come directly from Biblical injunctions. Even in recent times, this injunction continued to hold sway among traditional Jews. Polish Rabbi Israel Meir HaCohen Kagan devoted an entire book to “Lashon Hara,” evil speech that was true, more than a century after the acquittal of John Peter Zenger in colonial New York City in 1735 established the standard still in use today in Western countries that truth is a defense against libel.

 

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his bestselling book, Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well, quoted and then disagreed with a dictum of the prominent Washington Post editor Howard Simons21 that politicians don’t have the right to private lives. “It is morally unjustifiable to deny public officials a private life,” Telushkin wrote.22

 

Yet there are conflicting values within the Jewish tradition. Marshall Weiss, editor and publisher of The Dayton Jewish Observer, said that the overarching Jewish ethical dilemma for journalists in Jewish media is the tension between the two commandments found in Leviticus 19:16: “You shall not be a gossipmonger among your people; you shall not stand aside while your fellow’s blood is shed; I am the Lord.”23

 

Perhaps more widely known these days is the concept of “tikkun olam,” one of the most prominent terms in contemporary Jewish discourse. The term is also widespread outside of the Jewish world. Foreman’s textbook cites the term as one of the sources of journalism's drive for social responsibility:

 

Although social responsibility is not discussed here as a religious matter, a principle in Judaism known as tikkun olam seems to define it. Tikkun olam (pronounced tee-KOOK oh-LUHM) is Hebrew for “repairing the world” – an obligation to fix the problems of society, including violence, disease, poverty, and injustice.

 

24Rabbi Jill Jacobs described the modern meaning of tikkun olam as “the process of fixing large societal problems, while maintaining a belief that our actions can have a positive effect on the greater human and divine world.” She described her commitment to personal tikkun olam in a way that journalists should find familiar:

 

I ask myself whether the work I am doing makes our society, as a whole function in a more positive way; whether the work allows even the most vulnerable members of society to live fully realized lives; and whether the work contributes to establishing a world in which the divine presence is more readily apparent. If we each ask these questions of ourselves, we can help to ensure that our work is worthy of being deemed tikkun olam.25

 

If we combine the concept of tikkun olam with conclusions about community and connectedness among Jews by Rabbi Professor David Hartman, you can see the deep connection of journalistic advocacy and truth-telling to Jewish values. According to Rabbi Hartman, reviewing the core values of Maimonides, the central task of the Jewish people is “to battle against every form of idolatry” and to “fight against fantasy.” Rabbi Hartman wrote:

 

What does it mean to be a Jewish nation? It does not mean we announce utopia or we say that nothing in the past limits the future. The meaning of being a Jewish nation is to declare war against the distortions of the imagination, against fantasy, against idolatry. We must be the people that bears witness to the futility of the idolatrous quest.26

 

Even if we change the word “nation” in the preceding paragraph to “journalist,” the following sentences would still ring true. Jewish journalists must—and do when they are at their best—“declare war against the distortions of the imagination, against fantasy,” if we define those distortions and fantasies as public relations smokescreens, governments’ hidden agendas, and leaders consumed by their self-importance who believe that they should be beyond public scrutiny. Jewish journalists “bear witness to the futility of the idolatrous quest” by puncturing the balloons of vainglorious individuals and institutions, even as they struggle to fulfill the other central commandments of Judaism against tale-bearing and harmful speech.

 

Rabbi Hartman also described just how important, how embedded, how central, community is to the Jewish people:

 

The community so invades one’s identity that it would be correct to claim that one’s primary consciousness is of a “we.” I am a “we” before I become an “I” and the “I” surfaces only after it has appropriated fully the sense of “we.”27

 

So, Rabbi Hartman, without mentioning journalism, also addressed what the study found are some of the core challenges faced by journalists for Jewish media:

 

Can you be rooted totally in a community on one level, yet on another level find your own identity as an individual? Or is rebellion essential for a person’s sense of self, because as long as that person is in the context of a traditional community, the self is crushed? Do you need to distance yourself through total rejection in order to begin to surface as a self?28

 

Rabbi Hartman offers no answers to these questions, just as there are no absolute answers for journalists who seek to be part of their communities as well as maintain enough independence to view their communities clearly. The daily balancing act of journalists for Jewish media is a stressful, challenging one.

 

  • Alan D. Abbey is Director of Media and Internet Services at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, Israel, and Adjunct Professor of Journalism at National University, San Diego, California. This article is adapted from a presentation given at the American Jewish Press Association Annual Conference, June 2013, in Seattle, Washington. Alan D. Abbey can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

Notes:

 

1 Visiting Professor to Focus on Ethics in Journalism, University of Arkansas press release, Sept. 9, 2013 http://newswire.uark.edu/articles/21839/visiting-professor-to-focus-on-ethics-in-journalism

 

 

2 Foreman, Gene. The Ethical Journalist. Malden, MA: Wiley & Sons, 2010. p. 5. I use this text in the course I teach, Ethics in the New Media Age, at National University, San Diego, CA.

 

3 Rudoren, Jodi. “Rabbi David Hartman, Champion of an Adaptive Judaism, Dies at 81,” New York Times, February 10, 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/11/world/middleeast/rabbi-david-hartman-81-champion-of-an-adaptive-judaism.html?ref=obituaries

 

4 Hartman, David. “Balancing Ritual and Ethics in One’s Religious Life” Feb. 3, 2008 (Shalom Hartman Institute website: http://hartman.org.il/Blogs_View.asp?Article_Id=27&Cat_Id=414&Cat_Type=Blogs)

 

 

5 Op. cit.

 

6 Himelboim, Itai, & Yehiel Limor, “Media Institutions, News Organizations and the Journalistic Social Role Worldwide: A Cross-National and Cross-Organizational Study of Codes of Ethics.” (Mass Communication and Society, 14:71-92 [2011]).

 

7 Available upon request from the American Jewish Press Association, http://ajpa.org.

 

8 Op. cit. Foreman. p. 85.

 

9 Israel Law Center: “Criminal Charges Should be Filed’ Over Al-Dura Case,” May 20, 2013 (Algemeiner.com: http://www.algemeiner.com/2013/05/20/israel-law-center-criminal-charges-should-be-filed-over-al-dura-case/)

 

10 Weiss, Phillip., “Israeli report on al-Dura case is vengeful and ‘surreal,’ says Haaretz—but ‘NYT’ treats it as gospel,” May 20, 2013. ( http://mondoweiss.net/2013/05/israeli-interview-neither.html)

 

11 Anthony, Sebastian., “Was the 2013 World Press Photo of the Year faked with Photoshop, or merely manipulated?” (http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/155617-how-the-2013-world-press-photo-of-the-year-was-faked-with-photoshop)

 

12 Tooth, Roger. “Super-reality of Gaza funeral photo due to toning technique says contest winner,” May 14, 2013 (The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2013/may/14/gaza-funeral-photograph-world-press )

 

13 Abbey, Alan D., “Reporting Jewish: Do Journalists Have the Tools to Succeed” (The iEngage Project of the Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem, Israel, 2013). Found online at: http://www.academia.edu/3999626/Reporting_Jewish_Do_Journalists_Have_the_Tools_to_Succeed

 

14 Worlds of Journalism, found online at http://worldsofjournalism.org.

 

15 WOJ wording: There are ethical principles which are so important that they should be followed by all journalists, regardless of situation and context.

 

16 WOJ: What is ethical in journalism varies from one situation to another.

 

17 WOJ: Ethical dilemmas in news coverage are often so complex that journalists should be allowed to formulate their own individual codes of conduct.

 

18 Abbey, Op. cit., p. 27-28

 

19 Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the Mussar (Ethics) movement in the 19th century, is widely quoted for making this connection.

 

20 Schorsch, Ismar., Commentary on Parashat Tazri'a-M'tzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33), April 20, 1996. Found at: http://www.jtsa.edu/PreBuilt/ParashahArchives/5756/tazriamtzora.shtml

 

21 Simons, who was Jewish, was one of Woodward and Bernstein's editors at the Washington Post during their coverage of the Watergate scandal. He wrote an oral history of American Jews in 1988. He may be the exception that proves the rule.

 

22 Telushkin, Joseph. Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: How To Choose Words Wisely And Well (William Morrow & Co., New York, 1996). pp. 55-56.

 

23 E-mail to Alan Abbey, May 27, 2013.

 

24 Foreman, Op. cit., p. 27. Emphasis and italics from the original. Foreman cited his definition of “tikkun olam” as coming from Tikkun Olam: Social Responsibility in Jewish Thought and Law,” David Shatz, Chaim I. Waxman and Nathan J. Diament (eds) (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1997)

 

25 Jacobs, Jill. The History of “Tikkun Olam,” (Zeek Magazine: http://www.zeek.net/706tohu/index.php?page=2)

 

26 Hartman, David., Conflicting Visions: Spiritual Possibilities of Modern Israel, (New York: Schocken Books, 1990). pp.237-238.

 

27 Ibid., p.255.

 

28 Ibid., p. 255-256.