Preserving ethics in journalism

Journalism, while often motivated by a desire to sensationalize or impact change, must still always be guided by ethical behavior.

‘JOURNALISM HAS a unique position to bridge the disparate sectors of society.’ (photo credit: TNS)
‘JOURNALISM HAS a unique position to bridge the disparate sectors of society.’
(photo credit: TNS)
Within the ongoing story that has swept the Israeli justice system in recent weeks exist all the elements of intrigue, corruption and distrust that are the markings of any major public scandal.
As rabbis, our role is not to criminally investigate or convict a specific person or event; for that we rely on the police and justice system. But there are definite ethical and moral lessons to be taken from this story in relation to issues of privacy, confidentiality, slander and libel, and the very fundamental question of when and how information can and should be publicized.
The details that we know and are generally not being disputed by the parties involved is that there was some type of relationship between the head of the Israeli Bar and a number of women closely connected to those in search of promotions within the justice system. As this head of the Bar sat on the commission to make those promotions possible, the allegation is that he leveraged his position to engage one or more women in an intimate relationship.
It is further alleged that a news reporter came into possession of the private cellphone of the head of the Bar and then actively worked to access personal and intimate information on the phone, which is the basis of the case against him and others.
This aspect of the story presents several complex and critical ethical questions:
1. Is a person who obtains someone else’s phone permitted to hack into it to gain information that will be used against the legal owner of the phone? On every level, moral/ethical and legal/halachic, the answer is no. Morally, it is against the principle of ‘I shall not do what I would not want done unto me.’ On a legal/halachic level it is a transgression of the laws of slander that are among the harshest and most explicit rules in both the biblical and rabbinic teachings.
2. The more complex question arises if a person suspects that a private device holds information that could be of public interest if exposed. The distinction that needs to be made in coming to an answer is the very nature of the information obtained. If it is the well-known “ticking time bomb” where the information will save lives, avoid disaster or major crisis, then we would say there is room to allow the information to be shared. The caveat is that the information must be obtained and shared by people trained and empowered by law to do so – i.e. the police, courts, etc. However, in a case where the information being obtained will be of no direct public benefit, then there is no room to allow it to be obtained. Specifically, the law (here in Israel as well as other Western democracies) prohibits the admission of evidence obtained outside of the confines of the law. With that understanding, the type of information obtained by the journalist (neither a representative of the police or the justice system) would have to be deemed to have been obtained illicitly – if not illegally.
3. Can – or should – this information be admissible in a court of law? We have already acknowledged that at present, we know that this information – if obtained improperly – is generally not admissible as evidence. This deserves to be the case both from a regulatory level as well as from an ethical level. People deserve a right to privacy and this right is central to our definition of a democratic society.
4. How do we address the reality that bringing these issues to light may have a positive effect by enacting change in a potentially corrupt justice system? Perhaps this is the case, but that cannot be a factor in how we determine the ethical value of a particular action. Certainly there are no shortage of cases where good emerged from the actions of evildoers and certainly evil resulted from the actions of those intent on good. But as ethicists our responsibility must be to measure the intent of the action, as opposed to analyzing the result.
Journalism, while often motivated by a desire to sensationalize or impact change, must still always be guided by ethical behavior. Journalists are obligated to abide by standards of professional ethics and of course the law and respect for human rights.
By continuing to promote these ideals, professional journalists will maintain the trust of the public while serving as optimally objective sources of information.

The writer is the director of the Ethics Department of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization.