The scriptural source against speaking or acting as a talebearer (Leviticus 19:16) precedes a verse communicating a contrasting message. Verse 17 insists: “You shall surely rebuke your fellow, and not bear a sin on his account.” This mitzvah primarily refers to private rebuke; when a Jew observes his fellow sinning, he is commanded to convince him to desist if this is feasible. If the sin is bein adam lachaveiro (committed against a fellow human being) and private forms of rebuke have not succeeded, halacha allows one to publicize the sin. Halachic authorities base this on the Nevi’im (prophets) who themselves engaged in public rebuke if the situation called for it. (Douglas Wertheimer, DDS, Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, vol. XLI, pp. 99-109, Spring 2001)
Based on the Chafetz Chaim (the book on lashon hara by Rabbi Israel Meir HaCohen), Wertheimer asserts we can deduce six basic guidelines for the observant journalist who has halachic conviction that a story must go to print:
1) The information presented must be completely accurate.
2) A private confrontation must take place prior to the publication of the article.
3) The article may not exaggerate at all.
4) The reporter’s intention must be to help others, not harm them.
5) The article may not be published if there is another, more discreet, recourse.
6) The resultant harm should not be irreversible.
7) Even when the above six conditions have been fulfilled the reporter should undergo a process of cheshbon hanefesh (soul-searching) to determine that his or her intentions are indeed pure. A reporter whose intentions involve an ulterior motive, for example to advance his or her career, should not write the article.
Whereas a reporter’s personal morality may lead him or her to the conclusion that the public has a right to know about an injustice, the Torah’s morality might not agree in a particular case, or may require that the information be conveyed to the public in a more discreet manner than the reporter had intended.
While a reporter may have the personal conviction that an article must go to print, to simultaneously maintain an “I will be my own rabbi” attitude is contrary to Torah values, and will invariably result in halachic impropriety on the part of the journalist. Therefore, a reporter should choose a qualified posek (halachic authority) to consult about these matters – a posek he or she can trust to give accurate halachic rulings while empathizing with the reporter’s journalistic values.
With the above factors facing me as a prospective journalist, I wonder if it is possible to enter the profession while gaining respect from editors and fellow journalists. In our open society, religious people tend to be respected for their beliefs.
Nevertheless, an editor might reason, “While I respect his religious convictions, if this newbie reporter refuses to write about 90 percent of the stories I assign him, why should I offer him any?” This editorial attitude could prevail at a Jewish newspaper as much as at a secular one.
Of course, this all depends on the specific newspaper, or publication, the reporter is writing for. I worked part-time for several years as an editorial intern at Hadassah Magazine, where lashon hara wasn’t a prime concern since the article topics I worked on tended to be about issues rather than people.
The “secular” (or non-Orthodox affiliated) Jewish newspaper, while providing valuable news information to readers, tends to be more halachically problematic than an issues-oriented magazine. The Forward, originally a Yiddish daily with soialist leanings, today thrives as an English weekly. Seeking to appeal to a wider readership, it has, in recent years, hired some young Orthodox journalists.