Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Blogs, Journalistic Ethics, and Kosher Food at Dartmouth

It recently came to my attention that my blog had been quoted in the Dartmouth Independent, in an article entitled "The Economics of Observance," by Jared S. Westheim. The article deals with the kashrut ("kosher") standards of the Pavilion (apparently the kosher dining hall at Dartmouth University), which is supervised by Rabbi Rafael Saffra of the "Tablet-K" kashrut organization. Apikorsus is quoted on the subject of Saffra's standards:

Josh Gajer at Columbia, a former ’06 and mashgiach (religious supervisor) at the Pavilion, pointed out that “in the world of kosher supervision, this guy doesn’t have exactly a sterling reputation for high standards.” Numerous weblogs and local Orthodox practitioners concurred. One blog called Apikorsus, which is concerned with the intimacies of kashrut, stated that “there are probably legitimate reasons not to trust Tablet-K. Rabbi Saffra, who runs the organization, has a habit of jumping to certify products that others won't.” A significant number of others doubt the rigor of his work with Cabot.



First of all, some context: the quoted post (which you can read here) is actually about why I do eat Tablet-K cheeses. More importantly, as those of you who read this blog regularly know, I do not deal extensively with the "intimacies [intricacies?] of kashrut," nor do I represent myself as an authority on such matters.

There are legitimate and illegitimate ways for a journalist to make use of weblogs. Non-anonymous blogs by professional journalists, academics, etc. can be quoted as expert commentary on various subjects, although it is always preferable to contact the blogger and give him or her a chance to put the quotation into context. Non-anonymous blogs have about the status of "man-on-the street" interviews. In the context of this article, it might have made sense to quote Orthodox Dartmouth students, but a quotation from an anonymous nobody from God-knows where (e.g. Yours Truly) is of little value. It is particularly irresponsible to rely on such a source when a person's reputation is at stake.

Of course, I also bear some responsiblity for putting unsubstantiated, potentially harmful information in the public domain. The original version of the above quote included a specific allegation against Rabbi Saffra, which I removed because it was an unsupported rumor, clearly lashon hara (gossip) and possibly motsi shem ra (slander). I now realize that what I did write is almost as bad. I ought to have written, "there may be legitimate reasons not to trust Tabet-K," period.

One of the purposes of a university newspaper is for students to learn responsible journalistic practices, which they often do by making mistakes. I am clearly still learning responsible blogging practices, so I am sympathetic. At some point, however, we all have to take responsiblity for our actions.

I am e-mailing Jared Westheim with a link to this post, to give him a chance to respond if he sees fit to do so.

8 comments:

JSW said...

Dear Sir,

I appreciate your concern about the "Economics of Observence" article and recognize that you feel a serious violation of journalistic ethics has occurred by the publication of it.

Firstly, I am sorry that you feel the point of your previous post was eschewed by what you believe to be my incorrect interpretation of your post. And, yes, "intimacies" is supposed to read "intricacies".

Let me first try to explain why I used your blog as a source.

During my research for the article, I came across more than a few 'experts' that confirmed your statement. They, however, gave me no quotable material and wished to remain anonymous due to possible campus political repercussions because of this issue. Given that I had confirmed the information noted in your quote prior to print, I cannot agree with you that my use of your quote was "particularly irresponsible" or that the bulk of your quote was "unsubstantiated."

I believe the real problem is that you misread, and I miswrote, something extremely sensitive. Your quote was meant in the "man-on-the-street" vein. I only stated that you were "concerned with the intimacies [i can't believe that slipped through]of Kashrut" to indicate that you were someone "concerned" with these matters. Not an expert, but a member of a group "concerned" with Kashrut in a way which I, and other members of the general community, are not.

Your quote is also in the middle of a paragraph sampling public opinion. No "experts" are presented in that graph, nor were the quoted intended to be construed so. In no way did the bulk of my article hinge on your quotation, as it was only an example of how mistrust of Rabbi Saffra permeates the Orthodox community and consequently has effected the Pavilion's relationship with observant students.

This misunderstanding is my fault due to a misinformed interpretation of the purpose of blogs. I, at the time, saw blogs as public forums, collections of opinion, never as legitimate sources on which to stake articles. I had not hedged enough to take into consideration the fact that many might consider them actual sources of expert analysis.

After running two blogs of my own, I now see things quite differently, and realize just how well-developed the community is. My underestimation of the reach and influence of good blogs has since changed. And I apologize.

The quote I used is still heavily hedged, however, and not has nothing to do with the cheese situation, which is the reason why I used it. If I wanted to delve into the actual law concerning Cabot Cheese, I assure you I would have contacted an expert. This article, however, had much more to do with misgivings of the community than the manufacture of Cabot Cheese, however.

Finally, we at the Independent are not in any way, shape or form, a campus newspaper. We are a web magazine, which at this point, is trying to carve its own ethical standards for the legitimate use of weblogs, given our format. This only changes things slightly, as I should have better presented your quotation as what it was to me: an example of public opinion from a member of a community involved in such matters.

Therefore, I heartily apologize for using your quote without providing greater context, but I cannot agree that my intended use of it misrepresented its purpose. Nor do I believe that I printed a biased article, or in any way attempted to slander Saffra. The information you presented has been affirmed by many others, and I worked hard to find dissenting views from those present in the article, but could not find them amongst the community.

I apologize if you feel I did you any injustice, and in order to make amends as best I can, I request permission to print this blog entry in the Dartmouth Independent under the letters to the editor section.

Sincerely yours,

Jared S. Westheim

elf said...

Thank you for responding.

Dear Sir,

I hope that you mean that in a gender-neutral way :)

appreciate your concern about the "Economics of Observence" article and recognize that you feel a serious violation of journalistic ethics has occurred by the publication of it.

I would not go so far as to say that there was any "serious" violation of journalistic ethics here. I consider this a relatively minor ethical violation, but since it involved my blog, I felt the need to call attention to it.

During my research for the article, I came across more than a few 'experts' that confirmed your statement. They, however, gave me no quotable material and wished to remain anonymous due to possible campus political repercussions because of this issue.

I suspected that something of that nature might have occurred, and I am sympathetic. However, I don't think that quoting an anonymous blog is a good way to compensate for a dearth of quotes from the people who really matter. You might simply have stated that there seems to be a general mistrust of Saffra in the Orthodox community, but that few were willing to be quoted on the subject.

I believe the real problem is that you misread, and I miswrote, something extremely sensitive.... I only stated that you were "concerned with the intimacies [i can't believe that slipped through]of Kashrut" to indicate that you were someone "concerned" with these matters. Not an expert, but a member of a group "concerned" with Kashrut in a way which I, and other members of the general community, are not.

I think that the statement is misleading, as it suggests that my blog is concerned with the details of kashrut, which it is not. In fact, the evidence for my own concern with kashrut is almost entirely contained within the quote itself. However, I understand that your intention was not to be misleading, and your explanation makes sense.

Finally, we at the Independent are not in any way, shape or form, a campus newspaper.

I should have read up on the Indepenent before publishing. Another lesson learned.

Nor do I believe that I printed a biased article, or in any way attempted to slander Saffra.

I never thought that you did. I just think it's wise to take a cautious stance when dealing with a person's reputation. In that regard, however, I am just as responsible as you are.

I request permission to print this blog entry in the Dartmouth Independent under the letters to the editor section.

You are welcome to do so. Thank you for asking.

doer said...
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