Earlier this month, Rabbi Jonathan Ziring joined CJN editor Yoni Goldstein at Toronto’s Yeshivat B’nei Akiva Or Chaim in a debate about the relationship between Judaism and journalism ethics.
Some of the questions debated were: in what ways does journalism contribute positively to society? How does one reconcile the impulse of journalism to report with the Jewish value of maintaining privacy? How should a Jewish newspaper walk the line between reporting wrongdoing and avoiding portraying Judaism in a bad light? When is a Jewish community newspaper entitled to put the public interest ahead of the interests of innocent third parties? Is it possible for a newspaper to promote a particular perspective on a given issue and still report the facts of that issue impartially?
Rabbi Ziring, a Staten Island-native, received his bachelor’s degree from Yeshiva University’s Yeshiva College in philosophy and Jewish studies, his master’s from the Bernard Revel Graduate School in Jewish Philosophy, and smichah from Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS).
As a fellow with the Tikvah Fund, a non-profit group that offers grants to promote Jewish scholarship, Rabbi Ziring developed an extensive theory of journalistic ethics from a halachic perspective.
Over the next two years, Rabbi Ziring will be living in Toronto and will serve as a sgan rosh beit midrash at Yeshiva University Torah MiTzion Beit Midrash Zichron Dov of Toronto, an organization that aims to educate the Jewish community by applying Torah values to modern issues through classes and discussions.
In an interview with The CJN, Rabbi Ziring spoke about the some of the ethical issues that Jewish journalists must grapple with.
Where does your familiarity with journalism ethics come from?
A few years ago, I taught a class once a week at the Columbia University Hillel, and they ended up asking me to give a series on journalism, so I gave a semester-long series there, and then three years ago, I was a fellow at the Tikvah Fund and they were intrigued by the series I had given at Columbia and asked me, for their research project with them, to turn it into a written project, a series of articles that I put together and have been in the process of getting published since then.
I spent the year working on that with Neal Kozodoy, the former editor at Commentary, as one of my guides from the journalistic perspective and Rabbi Mark Gottlieb, who is the senior director at the Tikvah Fund.
Does it complicate things to look at media ethics through the lens of Jewish values?
It definitely complicates things. We start with a language problem on one level. Getting the conversation started is always difficult, because you have to change your frame of reference.
One you’ve gotten past that initial hurdle, there is a lot of room to bring the two into conversation. Jewish law and philosophy has much to say on these ethical questions that arise in media ethics.
There is a debate among different ethicists about using anonymous sourcing, for example.
Jewish law has a strong position, where, except in the most extenuating of circumstances, it opposes it.
What legitimates our belief in someone when he says that someone else did something wrong is the fact that he is willing to put his name on the line. And hiding behind anonymity would force us to draw into question his honesty and integrity in the situation. That’s a small example.
There is a divergence of law, of libel law, in western countries. In America, for example, the right of the public to know is so great that we can’t hinder the ability of the press to publicize information with overly exacting libel law. So in America, it is impossible to really convict someone of libel – you have to prove not only that the information was incorrect, but that there was malice. It’s very rarely successfully litigated.
In the Canadian Supreme Court and British Supreme Court, that hasn’t been the case. These supreme courts have found, in both countries, that the press, more often, needs to prove the necessity for the public good before they have the right to publicize something that is defamatory. Jewish law has something to say on this balance, on the importance of whether the right of the public to know was so great as to minimize the rights of an individual’s privacy.
When I was researching, it was helpful to bring into conversation this divergence of law.
How should a Jewish newspaper navigate a situation where reporting on an issue may be of public interest, but have negative consequences for a person, institution or community in general?
When you punish a criminal, you need to get him off the streets, and you know this will affect the family, but there is nothing you can do, because society has to take responsibility.
Sometimes it is going to be inevitable, that information needs to get out. On the other hand, we should want to balance it. If on some level, the ethical justification of the right of the public to know was the belief that on some level it will improve society, it’s definitely a hard ethical and legal call to make, with different decisions calling for different balances.
There is a passage in the Talmud about preventing the desecration of the name of God. It talks about a hypocrite, someone who parades himself about as a righteous person, but is in fact, a criminal behind closed doors. At least some of the commentary says it means that the existence of people like that, even if no one knows about it, is in itself a desecration of God’s name and it has to be undone. There is a positive value of people knowing that good people are good and bad people are bad.
People in the Jewish community might say, “How could you publicize that this person was abusive? You’re causing a desecration of God by publicizing it.”
The Talmud says that you publicize that type of thing, because if you don’t, that is a desecration of God’s name. So the Talmud has the opposite position, which is that publicizing the abuse was not a desecration, but the desecration was when the person committed the crime to begin with. The way to rectify it is by rooting it out and bringing it to light. That may not be the most popular thing to say in the Jewish community.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.