An acquaintance posted an ethical question on Facebook, and with his consent I’m providing my answer here in this column. The question has been edited.
Was what I did immoral?
Two months ago, I sent money through a new Israeli phone app to someone in Israel. I accidentally sent it to the wrong person. Within seconds I called the company and told them to cancel the transfer. They said that they couldn’t.
They told me to call the person I’d accidentally sent the money to and ask him not to download the app and not to accept the money. They said that after three days the transfer cancels automatically. I called him and he agreed.
But two days later he (or someone else with access to his phone) downloaded the app and took the money. The police said that they couldn’t help, the app company said they couldn’t help, and the guy disappeared. He was in my contacts list, but he wasn’t a friend – he was an employee at a shop I did business with. For two months I spoke with at least five people from the company that makes the app and they all said that nothing could be done.
After all the time spent and the frustration, I sent an email to the company’s spokesperson and said that I’m a freelance journalist. I write about things that bother me, and I would rather not write about my experience; I would rather get it resolved.
They called me this morning and said that they are fully refunding me the money. They admitted that other people had the same problem, and they are now improving their service to prevent mistakes like this from happening again. They are adding a verification step where the sender will be asked, “Is this the person or phone number you intended to send the money to?” It’s pretty clear that they are refunding me my money just not to get bad press.
A friend whom I greatly respect thinks it was immoral or unethical for me to “threaten” them by using my position as a journalist to get them to move on this. Part of her reasoning was that since I am a freelance journalist, it offers me leverage that other people don’t have.
Was I unethical? Was it an immoral threat?
Yes, what you did was unethical and here’s why.
There are really two questions here. The first is, “Is it okay to threaten negative publicity to resolve an issue with a business?” and the second is, “Does it matter if the person making the threat is a journalist?”
To start with, let’s be clear that while the app is poorly designed, the fault is primarily your own: the app did send money to the person you instructed it to send money to. The initial problem was your carelessness.
Does the maker of the app bear some responsibility for not having safeguards to protect people from “fat finger errors?” They do – and very likely you weren’t the first person to report this problem to them. But you also bear some responsibility. Even if the problem was the fault of the app, that does not justify the technique you used to solve the problem.
What you did, by threatening negative publicity, is blackmail, which is a subset of extortion. A legal dictionary defines blackmail as “extortion or coercion often by written threats especially of public exposure.” Since the information you are proposing to reveal is true, there’s nothing illegal or immoral about revealing it. What is problematic is using your knowledge to coerce another party to give you money. That’s similar to what AMI, the owner of the National Enquirer, recently did to Jeff Bezos: they threatened to reveal information he would have preferred remain confidential, if he didn’t bend to their will. He’s the world’s richest man, so he refused to give in. Your app maker is not in such a strong position, so they yielded to your threat.
In the Jewish tradition, we take language very seriously. Blackmail, offering to withhold sensitive information for gain, is not something that should be possible. We are forbidden to reveal embarrassing information about others – that’s lashon hara. On the other hand, it’s not lashon hara to inform people who need to know about a problem – in that case you’re obligated to share the information. But there is no situation where it’s okay to withhold information others should have in exchange for payment, or to demand money to keep your mouth shut in situations where you are obligated to keep your mouth shut anyway.
Are journalists held to a different standard?
Does it make any difference if you’re an individual threatening to write a negative review on Yelp, or a journalist threatening to write an article?
In either case, it’s extortion, and immoral. But it’s worse to do it as a journalist.
Different people are held to different standards. The rabbis say that Moses sinned by striking the rock instead of talking to it and though it might not seem so great, he was held to a higher standard as the leader of his generation and was a truly righteous man. Ask any rabbi if they’re held to a different standard than their congregants. If you present yourself as a journalist, you are expected to comply with the ethical standards of journalism. Using one’s position as a journalist to extort preferred treatment violates journalistic norms. The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics states that journalists must:
Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.
The New York Times Handbook for Ethical Journalism states:
Staff members may not threaten to damage uncooperative sources. They may not promise favorable coverage in return for cooperation.
I asked a few senior journalist friends about this situation; they all agree that using your status as a journalist to get preferable treatment crosses a line and is forbidden. One of them made a few important points. First of all, do you write a column about bad service, or are you stretching the definition of the kinds of things you write about in order to get better service? The first ironclad rule is tell the truth and never to misrepresent yourself. And second, if you do write a column about customer service, you want to know how they treat “civilians” not how they treat reporters. After you went through the experience, you could call them and ask if they want to comment, but only if you’re writing the piece either way.
A better approach:
There is a way you might have been able to use your position as a journalist without violating ethical norms. Instead of threatening to publish an article unless they paid you money, you could have informed the app maker that you were planning to write an article about your experience using their service. You could then have asked them if they ever make refunds in such cases, and what they are willing to do to correct this problem.
What’s different in doing it this way? You’re not making a threat: you’re telling them about an article you are going to write and offering them the chance to present their side of the story. If they do decide to give you a refund, that also becomes public knowledge, and others can benefit from knowing that policy as well.
If you do regularly write about technology and discovered this flaw, it would arguably be unethical for you to not to write about the problem. The public should be informed that if they use this app, there is danger. Many apps have had serious flaws fixed only after such flaws became public.
The writer, a rabbi and businessman, answers ethical questions from readers, guided by Halacha, philosophy and common sense. Dividing his time between Jerusalem and the US, he writes about ethics at ethics.neshamah.net/. Readers are invited to submit ethical dilemmas to email@example.com.