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Jewish wisdom stories reveal the lovingkindness of ethics-based news


Published onApr 06, 2024
Jewish wisdom stories reveal the lovingkindness of ethics-based news

The US Constitution assigns the press a crucial role in American democracy: publish true information that holds the powerful to account and enables the people’s informed consent to government. Unfortunately, Americans can’t agree what ‘true’ means. Accountable news (following journalism ethics) opposes alternative news (following self-interest, specifically emotions and bias). Consequently, hatred and violence are rising. Fact-checking initiatives at universities around the US failed to unify the public behind a truth standard. Exploring options, I had a surprise: today’s journalism ethics closely resemble ancient Jewish truth ethics. Jewish wisdom stories may be understood as illustrating them both. Pairing journalism ethics with Jewish wisdom stories, I developed the ‘truth check’, a technique for verifying the news and gauging its impact. Truth-checking enables participants, even some believers in post-truth, to experience the humanity of ethics-based (accountable) news: a journey towards truth in stages starting with constraining self-interest. This journey will touch mind and heart, boosting public interest in journalism ethics and accountable news.

Key words: accountable/alternative news, Jewish wisdom stories, lovingkindness, Mussar, truth check, verification


Uncertainty about truth is threatening American democracy. Under the US Constitution, democracy depends on the press to publish true information about the powerful and offer it to the people, who can then cast an informed vote. But this template of democracy assumes that the press and the public can identify true information, and that’s just what Americans cannot do because of an ‘utter confusion’ about truth (Kovach and Rosenstiel 2014: 49). America now has a bifurcated news media – one type of news I will call accountable and the other, alternative. Each has its own concept of news content and its own, implicit, model of truth. Accountable news follows public standards called journalism ethics – accountability is one of them. Alternative news offers distinctive news content, ‘anti-system and anti-elite attitudes’ (Andersen, Shehata and Andersson 2023: 833) and an alternative concept of truth – treating as true ‘information that may be biased or even false’ (ibid). Kovach and Rosenstiel call verification ‘the “beating heart” of credible journalism’ (2014: 100). But verifying the news, determining whether it is true or not, requires a shared truth model. Faced with bifurcated media, Americans cannot even tell who won the 2020 election, Biden or Trump? To address the stalemate, this paper seeks to unify Americans behind journalism ethics as a truth standard and accountable news as its expression.

To address this crisis of democracy, the American public would benefit from being able to identify true news. But how can we identify it? This essay does not pretend to solve the complex problem of ‘fake news’. It does, though, aim to start a valuable conversation about the need to have standards for true news and a method for verification. Such a conversation should help the public make informed decisions about which type of news to patronise. This essay has three parts: an analysis of the problem, a proposed solution and a taster of the solution: an invention called a ‘truth check’. Truth-checking is a method for verifying the news designed to attract varied people – even some in the post- truth crowd – who would likely reject a theoretical argument (say, this essay). Truth-checking is an activity, not an analysis. It lets participants discuss varied truth standards, learn tools to verify the news and compare the impact on society of accountable versus alternative news.

Different pragmatic theories of truth and their consequences

Accountable and alternative news both follow pragmatism, although different versions. William James (1842-1910) developed the truth model called pragmatism in response to the ‘correspondence theory’ of truth falling out of favour. This theory assumes that ‘a believer- independent world’ exists ‘to which our beliefs or sentences might correspond’ (Misak 2008: 283). Misak and many other philosophers rejected the assumption that we human beings can ‘step outside of our corpus of beliefs and practices’ (ibid) to determine the truth. By contrast, pragmatism understands us as enclosed within our beliefs and practices, but still able to form shared agreements for seeking truth. As ethicist Stephen J. Ward explains, pragmatism understands truth in journalism as ‘the testing of journalistic articles, regarded as interpretations, by a set of agreed-upon criteria’ (Ward 2008: 302).

Many philosophers, while pleased at the demise of the correspondence theory, objected to James’s version of pragmatism on the grounds of its being overly broad. To take an immediate example, Jamesian pragmatism fits both accountable and alternative news, yet they have dramatically different approaches to truth. Charles Peirce resolved this problem by defining ‘agreements’ more narrowly, to include within them truth-seeking practices such as evidence and verification (Misak 2008: 116). Although human beings cannot definitively reach the truth, ‘Peircean inquirers do indeed aim at truth’ (ibid) by using the practices designed for that purpose. Peircean pragmatism fits accountable but not alternative news, a useful distinction for comparing their respective impacts on the surrounding society.

News unmoored from truth standards poses a risk, particularly given its popularity. According to former US President Barack Obama, ‘Half of America gets its news from ALT-news outlets, social media and digital companies like Fox News, Facebook, Reddit, X (formerly Twitter), 4 Chan, QAnon and many others’ (Hendrix 2022). A consumer of ALT-news experiences it as a world unto itself, a network of shared agreements fitting Jamesian pragmatism. In an opinion column for the Washington Post, Margaret Sullivan calls this network ‘an alternate universe’ (Sullivan 2020).

Foreign countries exploit alternative news outlets to harm the US. Obama gives an instance: ‘Autocrats like Putin have used these platforms as a strategic weapon against democratic countries they consider a threat’ (Hendrix 2022). Despite such threats, Time’s Richard Stengel warns ‘domestic disinformation is a greater menace than foreign disinformation’ (Stengel 2020). Government departments like the FBI and DOJ consider that the primary homegrown menace comes from the ‘sprawling, ever-mutating belief now commonly known as the Replacement Theory’ (Confessore and Yourish 2022). This theory maintains that ‘Western elites, sometimes manipulated by Jews, want to “replace” and disempower White Americans’ (ibid). Extending its reach, the Replacement Theory is now becoming normalised, ‘dragged into the mainstream’ with the help of legislators, lobbyists and media personalities (Kieffer 2023). Exact numbers are not available, but fear and rage at the prospect of ‘replacement’ has inspired dozens of mass murders from Maine to California. New York Times reporters label the Replacement Theory ‘an instrument of racist terror’ (Confessore and Yourish 2020).

Originally, ALT-news outlets sought to disagree, but this gradually became about promoting an alternative reality. In 1987, the US government repealed the Fairness Act stipulating that journalists include at least two viewpoints in their reporting. After the heyday of Talk Radio, the repeal continued feeding conservative media. According to the Weekly Standard’s Matt Labash, ‘conservative media outlets have taken off in recent years because “they feed the rage”’. He continued: ‘We’ve created this cottage industry in which it pays to be un-objective. It pays to be subjective as much as possible. It’s a great way to have your cake and eat it too. Criticize other people for not being objective. Be as subjective as you want. It’s a great little racket’ (Romenesko 2003). Labash connected rejecting truth practices (repealing the Fairness Doctrine) to promoting self-interest and then disguising the dynamic within an information bubble (a separate reality).

Ignoring truth practices nourishes self-interest, then rage. Chris Stirewalt, a former Fox News political editor, knows ‘media outlets stoke anger to build audiences’ (Confessore and Yourish 2022). But why do anger and violence attract so many people? Amanda Ripley, a specialist in conflict mediation, has documented how engaging in violence can quickly build a sense of self-worth: ‘Violence helps the individual to escape the irrelevance of his existence, fills the emptiness of his life and provides him with the heady experience of power over himself and over others’ (Ripley 2021: 142). News outlets that reject truth practices encourage writers to access the ‘higher truth’ of conspiracy theories, sparking the dynamic of self-interest. A new believer becomes an instant hero, fighting a hated enemy, hurting others to advance himself. The information bubble shields the believer from facing the lie: he’s not a hero but a victim tricked into surrendering his power of judgement.

Spreading lies and disinformation has degraded truth into ‘post-truth’ and its sidekick ‘post-fact’. Trump, the prime example, does more than lie. ‘His incessant accusations of fake news against mainstream outlets such as the Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN, reflect a longstanding disdain for the truth’ (Bufacchi 2020). Bufacchi clarifies: Trump is not merely ‘denying certain facts. Instead, he is determined to undermine the theoretical infrastructure that makes it possible to have a conversation about truth’ (ibid). Journalist and activist Leonard Pitts gives an instance of ‘post truth’: US Senator John Kyl recently alleged that 90 per cent of Planned Parenthood’s services involve abortion. Their administration replied, the figure is only 3 per cent. Kyl’s office retorted his comment ‘was not intended to be factual’ (Prince 2017). Bufacchi summarises: compared to lying, ‘post-truth is much more devious and dangerous to the democratic fabric of our society’ (Bufacchi 2020). Disdain for the truth threatens our very ability to hold a conversation. Returning to the practices of truth may help us speak to one another again.

Perhaps fact-checking can unify Americans behind a truth standard. Kovach and Rosenstiel teach us that ‘journalism has a foundation of facts’ (Kovach and Rosenstiel 2014: 33). Indeed, fact-checking is one principle of journalism ethics. To unify the country behind a truth standard, colleges and universities turned to fact-checking around 2015. NPR reported on one programme at Stanford University: ‘a solution is for all readers to read like fact-checkers’ (Davis 2016). Washington State University instituted the Digital Polarisation Initiative, teaching fact-checking at eleven US colleges and universities (American Democracy Project 2016). Fact-checking has undeniable value. Nevertheless, despite programmes worldwide, ‘there seems to be little that fact-checking ... can do to alter deeply-held beliefs that are based on inaccurate information’ (Tompkins 2020). From another vantage point, epistemologists questioned the outdated positivist assumption behind fact-checking, that facts are absolute, rather than products of interpretation like truth (Uscinski and Butler 2013). Though launched with optimism, fact-checking initiatives have failed to unify Americans behind a truth standard for the news.

Turn to truth

Applying the complete code of journalism ethics may attract more people. Kovach and Rosenstiel assert: ‘People still passionately believe in meaning. They want the whole picture, not just part of it’ (2014: 57). We recall their starting question for verifying the news: was it created following proper principles? (ibid: 10). Using all the ethical principles, not just one, will show more accurately how a news item has been created. Journalist and activist Aidan White founded the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN). White insisted, ‘study core values first’ (White 2017). The EJN began by collecting 400 codes of journalism ethics worldwide and consolidated them into a single code – the default code in this essay, see the charts below (Ethical Journalism Network n.d.). The global spread of journalism ethics proves their value. White dreamed the public would eventually link journalism ethics to a healthy democracy (White 2008: 3).

Can we correctly refer to ‘all principles of ethics’? Indeed, one cannot definitively list all of them because journalism codes group the principles differently – some ending up with eight, some with three. Also, the principles often work in tandem, complementing one another as seen in the truth-checks below. However, one can discern recurring concepts. Perhaps we should conceptualise the principles of journalism ethics as working holistically, functioning together as a single whole, despite internal variations.

Journalists’ exercise of judgement is a complex and key aspect of journalism ethics. The first US code of journalism ethics was developed in the 1920s by Walter Lippmann. To protect the news against individual biases, Lippmann forbade journalists from using their judgement. Finally, 70 years later, the ethicist Stephen J. Ward refreshed the ethics truth model from positivism to pragmatism. Now journalists have to use judgement to apply ethical principles. So what protects today’s news against personal bias? White explains: ‘The ethics themselves! Each principle in today’s code constrains a journalist’s expression’, to resist a particular source of bias (White 2010). For instance: the principle of ‘impartiality’ requires journalists to use at least two viewpoints in each article resisting the bias called an ‘information bubble’. The entire ethics code guards the news from multiple sources of bias. Judgement presents a further puzzle. Can journalists today interpret the ethics any way they want? No, because professional journalists write within a framework of standards. If a journalist makes a mistake, others see it, and, under the principle of accountability, she must either use the code to justify her choice or apologise. Now we can appreciate the dangers of hiring untrained, so-called ‘citizen journalists’, the title given ALT-news reporters. The adjective ‘citizen’ implies an unmediated, and therefore true, picture of the world. Paradoxically, writing true, or reliable,1 news requires mediation – by a truth standard.

Journalism ethics find an unsuspected twin

We can now explain the unusual approach of this essay. Understanding journalism ethics holistically opens the door to an unsuspected twin. Today’s journalism ethics closely resemble another set of ethics more than one millennium older: Jewish ethics for truth. Jewish wisdom stories may be understood as illustrating them both. The names of the ethical principles, given below, reflect different contexts, but their content remains remarkably alike.

Table 1: Journalism and Jewish truth ethics compared


Accuracy (and Honesty)


*Subordinate: Handling fact

Handling fact

*Subordinate: Setting context

Setting context


Avoid conflict of interest


Use multiple perspectives


Minimise harm

Accountability (publicise the ethics, apologise)


Mussar teachings ground this study of Jewish truth ethics and wisdom stories, a curriculum for behaviour modification called Mussar (‘instruction’) that originated in the 10th century. Mussar helps individuals incorporate ethics into their daily lives. In the nineteenth century, Rabbi Israel Salanter inspired his disciples to change the mode of Mussar instruction from tutorial to classroom (Morinis 2008: 9). Today, Mussar is taught around the United States and abroad. This essay draws from the American Mussar textbook, Everyday holiness, by Dr. Alan Morinis (2008). The textbook covers many aspects of ethics including truth and presents wisdom stories for each. The wisdom stories in this essay come from Mussar lore, the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds (ancient teachings on Jewish law) and Midrash (informal interpretations of Torah). A recent collection of ‘Jewish stories’ provided many samples for analysing plots (Certner 1983); although, none of these stories is explicitly discussed here.

Although it teaches Jewish ethics, Mussar is taught within Judaism and beyond. It has a history of being presented to people of varied faiths, cultures, social classes and professions. In the eighteenth century, Mussar even touched colonial America. Benjamin Franklin studied self- improvement with Mussar scholars and earned the title ‘Mussar Sage of Philadelphia’ (Heinze 2004: 61). Recently, a Copenhagen business school taught Mussar to students of all faiths (Comer and Schwartz 2020) and a Californian prison taught it to women of all faiths (Musleah 2017). Instructors of diverse religious backgrounds praise Mussar’s pedagogy, especially its emphasis on teaching through the ‘heart’: ‘Mussar transfers some of that knowledge [of right and wrong] and moves it over to our heart so our instinctive reactions begin to change’ (ibid). Rabbi Ira Stone, a Mussar instructor, summarises its core value: ‘Life isn’t all about us. ... It’s an avenue of escape from the self- centeredness of the culture we live in’ (ibid).

There are parallels with some other story-based approaches to ethics. Nussbaum considers the novel ‘an ideal setting for moral attention’ (Nussbaum 1989). Her individualised, aesthetic approach to moral attention highlights, by contrast, the advantages of using wisdom stories to teach ethics in a journalism setting. Nussbaum rejects using universal standards to teach ethics. She maintains that even if people managed to apply moral standards to the concrete case, they would be ‘insufficiently equipped by them to act rightly in it’ (ibid). As an example, Nussbaum chooses a richly detailed passage from Henry James’s Golden bowl (ibid). Two individuals, a father and daughter, share a dilemma. They deeply love each other but must separate, the father releasing his daughter to love her husband. On a lake outing, they use words to create an image of the daughter as a lovely, soaring bird, at liberty, yet still beautiful and beloved. Their aesthetic creation allows them to separate. Nussbaum calls their word picture ‘a moral accomplishment’, something for future readers of the novel to ‘imitate’ (ibid). Nussbaum’s presentation of how narrative teaches ethics has similarities to the analysis here but is less structured. It avoids truth standards, de-emphasises judgement and gives concrete instances rather than the repeated plots in wisdom stories.

Jewish wisdom stories present a search for truth as a personal, developmental process. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls this a Jewish understanding of truth: ‘The Bible is. ... truth as story, as opposed to the more usual model of truth as system’ (Sacks 2005: 11). Like the Bible as analysed by Sacks, wisdom stories present truth as a process. Alan Morinis gives more details in his Mussar textbook. In Judaism, Morinis writes, seeking truth is ‘not a thing that depends on the scientific verifiability of the facts. Truth is an exercise, a judgement and a test’ (Morinis 2008: 172), taken by individuals acting alone within the framework of truth standards. This ‘test’ is not a calm, reflective dialogue with someone else, as in Nussbaum, but a challenging, archetypal struggle between an individual’s bad and good inclinations (yetzer ha ra and yetzer ha tov). The ‘bad inclination’ focuses on self (‘self-interest’) engendering behaviours from pride, fear to dishonesty. The ‘good inclination’ focuses on others’ needs, engendering chesed. Chesed (here, translated into English as ‘lovingkindness’) includes both empathy with another’s pain and taking action to heal the pain (Kaye n.d.). Wisdom story plots portray truth-seekers struggling to approach truth. Success opens individuals to other people.

Table 2: Mussar applied to journalism ethics

To apply this journalism principle

Constrain expression

Constrain self-interest

Process releases



Accuracy and Honesty

Be honest. Strive for accuracy

Control pride and fear

Chesed: humility, courage and empathy


Choose reliable sources
Collect material in person

Control disdain and dishonesty

Chesed: respect for others and honesty

*Setting context

Identify relevant background

Control indifference to others

Chesed: empathy and good listening skills


Avoid or declare conflicts of interest

Control greed and dishonesty

Chesed: generosity and honesty

Impartiality; Multiple viewpoints

Present at least two viewpoints

Control indifference and pride

Chesed: empathy, humility and courage

Humanity; Minimise harm

peoples’ need
for information with their need for protection, shielding them from undue harm

Control indifference

Chesed: empathy and good listening skills


Publish one’s rules for truth and apologise for any mistakes

Control pride and dishonesty

Chesed: humility, courage and honesty

The truth check: Verification with a human face

This study uses wisdom stories about truth to verify items of news. I call this verification procedure a ‘truth check’ and, polemically, ‘verification with a human face’ to contrast with a fact-check. In a similar way, Ward uses the phrase ‘objectivity with a human face’ to compare the pragmatic approach of using judgement to find truth with the traditional approach of using fact-checking alone (Ward 1999). Fact-checking may complement truth checking – but not replace it. ‘Verification with a human face’ can draw people to accountable news – even some who have been unmoved by fact-checking.

To implement any ethical principle, journalists must complete the same four steps as everyday characters in a wisdom story. A step that’s ‘not alive’, Morinis explains, is not under a person’s consideration (Morinis 2008: 23). The steps all require grit: wrestling with self-interest (letting in alternatives enough to experience a dilemma), training judgement (using reason and lovingkindness to choose a commitment), taking a Bechirah2 action to implement the commitment and, finally, welcoming lovingkindness: accepting a new, more generous life with stronger human connections (ibid: 23-24).

This paragraph outlines one way that truth checks can be conducted. Truth checks enable members of the public to evaluate published items of news for truth and impact. People can do truth checks alone or in small groups, learning from each others’ ideas. A truth check evaluates paired news articles: one article of ALT-news and one of accountable news. To conduct a truth check, select an ethical principle to study. Choose a relevant wisdom story and one item of each news type, your verification candidates. Locate the four steps in your wisdom story and then search for them in each news item. In the context of a truth check, I term the steps ‘benchmarks’. Finding all four benchmarks in a news item verifies it. To conclude, review the impact of each news item. Do you see differences between accountable and alternative news in this respect?

Truth check case 1: Accuracy/honesty

The ethic of accuracy/honesty allows the press to fulfil its primary responsibility as watchdog. Honesty adds to accuracy an element of revelation, sometimes requiring courage.3 The Code of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) connects all three: be ‘honest and courageous about holding those with power accountable’ (SPJ 2014).

Wisdom story

A wisdom story from Mussar lore about Rabbi Israel Salanter dramatises his inner struggle to be honest (Morinis 2008: 172). The rabbi is lecturing on a passage from Talmud. A student raises a powerful objection and the rabbi can’t answer. He devises responses to fool his students – but knows they are wrong.

Wrestling with self-interest. The rabbi faces a dilemma between deceiving his students on the one hand or admitting his shameful ignorance on the other.

Training judgement. As founder of modern Mussar, Rabbi Salanter knows Jewish truth ethics better than most and strives to live within their framework. Suddenly, he recalls his mission and chides himself: ‘You study Mussar! Admit the truth!’ (ibid: 172) He constrains his fear and pride.

Bechirah moment, The rabbi steps down, ceding the dais to his student. Later he tells his students about his dilemma and final choice.

Lovingkindness: The rabbi’s choice for accuracy/honesty allowed him to serve his own soul and ‘the souls of others’ (ibid: 172).

Accountable news

Linda Kriger had suffered since childhood from Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and was contemplating publishing a non-fiction account of her illness.

Wrestling with self-interest. Before writing her non-fictional book, Kriger sensed an inner conflict: ‘Speak about my condition, and I may alienate my listener.’ On the other hand, she became frustrated by ‘simplistic’ messages like ‘Yes, it’s hard to have IBD, but you can do it!’ (Kriger 2018).

Training judgement. As a former journalist for an outlet of accountable news, the Philadelphia inquirer, Kriger would have known the principle of honesty/accuracy. She realised the book ‘had yet to be written that ... examined the emotional roller coaster experienced by people with IBD’ (ibid: 4). Empathy led her to write the book.

Bechirah moment. Kriger researched, then published the book Gut feelings (Kriger: 2015). One interview almost stopped her. She had just related in detail to one lady that she had had ulcerative colitis and her entire colon had been removed and replaced with a J-pouch to substitute for her large intestine, ‘.... [when the lady] disappeared’ (ibid: 1). Buoyed by her sense of purpose, Kriger kept going.

Lovingkindness. After the book appeared, a PhD psychologist formerly at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Department of Gastroenterology wrote: ‘This is an invaluable road-map of steps and experiences that can guide one’s efforts, whether parent or individual with IBD’ (Kodman- Jones n.d.). Kriger sought to spread respect and succeeded.

Alternative news

In 2020, Al Letson, of PRX, interviewed Joshua Bates, who had recently left the alternative news outlet Stormfront after 10 years writing for them as an untrained ‘citizen journalist’. Letson’s interview documents Bates’s career, ‘the story through the eyes of a man that lived it’ (Alcorn and Neely 2021).

Wrestling with self-interest: Bates described to Letson the dilemma he felt before signing up with Stormfront. Bates had recently left the Marines and felt disempowered ‘without a team and a mission’ (ibid). Should he revive his old enthusiasm for Obama, or join Stormfront and quickly regain the heroism and mission he had lost? Before he had had time to reflect, self-interest snared him. A banner arching over Stormfront’s homepage advertised ‘higher truth’, ‘the real truth, the true truth people don’t want you to have’ (ibid). Cast as a conspiracy story, this ‘higher truth’ promised believers instant heroism, a shout-out to Bates.

Training judgement (step not active for Bates). Bates’s choice to spread hatred confirms Ripley’s thesis that people feeling irrelevant turn to violence for ‘the heady experience of power’.

Bechirah moment (step not active for Bates). As a Stormfront writer, Bates assumed a soldier’s role. He revved up his audience like a general inspiring his men: ‘Rekindle your inner hate [and] prepare to die an honourable death!’ (ibid).

Lovingkindness (self-interest turns help into harm). After leaving the movement, Bates confessed to Letson that he would be ‘making up for the things [he’d done] for the rest of his life’ (ibid).

Second round of training judgement (step active for Bates). Bates finally went outdoors to explore. During 10 years, he had spent only five days outside his computer room (Alcorn and Neely 2021). He attended the 2017 Summer of Hate rally in Charlottesville VA. He witnessed ‘a huge amount of infighting’ and left ‘disillusioned’. Later, he visited the Stormfront Command Center called the Base. Its explicit focus on violence ‘turned him off’ (ibid). He abandoned the Base, Stormfront and, eventually, White Supremacy altogether. Bates admitted to Letson he had let himself be manipulated.

Verification and summary. Kriger’s book merits verification. She persisted through humiliating obstacles using her journalism skills to help IBD sufferers. She realised ‘everyone was searching for understanding and compassion’ (Kriger 2018: 7). Her book released lovingkindness. Bates, by contrast, ceded to an unmoored ‘higher truth’, eviscerated his judgement, let himself be manipulated and spread harm he would always regret.

Truth check case 2: Impartiality

The name of the ethical principle, ‘Impartiality’, reflects a positivist time when journalists just assembled facts, forgoing judgement and multiple viewpoints. As ideas about truth evolved and using at least two viewpoints became common, they had to be evenly balanced. But this concept often devolved into ‘false balance’: ‘presenting each side of a debate as equally credible even when the factual evidence [was] stacked heavily on one side’ (Spayd 2016). Today in light of pragmatism, ethicists understand impartiality as based on ‘interlocking conceptual schemes’, rather than direct observation of reality (Ward 2010: 147). Therefore, today’s codes treat impartiality as arising from multiple viewpoints. For example, the code of National Public Radio (NPR) recommends: ‘Present unheard voices’ (NPR n.d.). An academic article references a third way of handling opposed viewpoints: ‘Nurture a collective climate of rational opinion formation’ (Wahl-Jorgensen, Berry and Cable 2016).

Wisdom story

The Jewish Houses of Hillel and Shammai constantly debated each other (Goldberg and Zecher 2021: 89-98).

Wrestling with self-interest. Members of the House of Hillel decided to review their method for handling opposed viewpoints. On the one hand, they wanted to be right; on the other, they knew that sometimes they were wrong. What should they do?

Training judgement. The fact that these two eminently respected scholarly Jewish tradition, truth is open to interpretation – by those who can work within its standards. The House of Hillel discovered how to resolve their dilemma. Instead of keeping one viewpoint and discarding the other, they would keep both viewpoints allowing them to interact.

Bechirah moment. A voice from heaven intervened: whereas both Houses were right, the House of Hillel was ‘a little more right’ (ibid). The House of Hillel held the opposed opinions in tension so that they would influence one another. The process requires humility and attentive listening.

Lovingkindness. This discovery by the House of Hillel and its ratification by the angels introduced a new way to approach truth, opening people to others different from themselves.

Accountable news

Rick Rojas demonstrates the skill of holding opposed viewpoints in tension by writing about people developing the skill (Rojas 2020). His article teems with controversy about whether to replace the Mississippi State flag. For over 100 years, the State legislature had proudly displayed a flag sporting the Confederate emblem. In 2001, a replacement vote had flopped. But before a repeat vote in 2020 (the subject of Rojas’s article), debate grew lively. Rojas traces the interaction of viewpoints. A New York Times reporter, Rojas would know journalism ethics including the principle of Impartiality. Since his observations about others illustrate changes he must have been making himself, the comments below focus on the progress of those whom Rojas describes.

Wrestling with self-interest: Black residents had always recognised ‘the violence and racism of the flag’ (ibid). For them, the flag was ‘an inescapable sign of racial scars’ (ibid). By contrast, many white residents admired its ‘proud display of old South heritage’ (ibid). In 2001, Senator Karl Oliver posted on Facebook that protesters against Southern Civil War heroes ‘should be lynched’ (ibid). Opinions remained staunchly opposed – and static. Each side was angry.

Training judgement. After the 2007 murder of the Black man George Floyd by the Minneapolis police, ‘Mississippi began grappling with the flag again’ (ibid). Legislators and their constituents started entertaining unfamiliar ideas, holding them in tension with familiar ones. One lawmaker reconciled himself to holding opposed opinions: ‘Whether we like it or not, the Confederate emblem on our state flag is viewed by many as a symbol of hate there’s no getting around that fact’ (ibid). Many constituents still loyal to the South had begun seeking broader associations: ‘football and basketball coaches .... country music stars, the state’s Black and white Baptist conventions, all want to remove the flag’ (ibid).

Bechirah action: The 2020 vote approached. ‘Lawmakers described wrestling with competing emotions.’ Even Karl Oliver apologised and pleaded for a flag that would create unity. The House Democratic leader announced: ‘We’re one Mississippi moving forward!’ (ibid). This time, legislators voted to replace.

Lovingkindness: After hearing the vote tally, ‘people waiting in the Capitol corridors erupted into applause’ (ibid). The Director of Mississippi Votes proclaimed: Mississippi had just made ‘some character decisions’ (ibid). The journalist, Rick Rojas, had carefully traced the collaborative process of holding opposed views in tension so they can interact.

Accountable news

This section examines a case where accountable news outlets were accused of using ‘false balance’ (the appearance of balance) to perpetuate a ‘legacy of racism’ (ibid). A journalism professor from Thomas Jefferson University published a report: ‘Is both-sides journalism truly unbiased?’ (Zielinska 2020). Residents of Philadelphia’s Germantown, a mostly Black, vulnerable community, confronted ‘legacy media’, probably led by the ethics-based Philadelphia Inquirer. Germantown residents accused ‘legacy’ news outlets of using the appearance of balance to ‘invalidate marginalized voices’ (ibid). ‘False balance’ here refers not to evidence, but community voices. So-called parachute journalists ‘go into traditionally marginalised communities, take out specific narratives ... often based on stereotypes and only return when they want more of the same’ (ibid). Parachute reporting favours sensational crimes while silencing vulnerable communities. Feeling forgotten, Germantown residents mistrusted ‘legacy’ outlets and turned to alternative ones, especially social media.

To revive silenced voices, local residents and academics organised a journalism project at Germantown’s Info Hub. The Hub aims to ‘connect, highlight and elevate the voices’ of Germantown residents” (ibid). The partners organised ‘accountability discussions’ between residents and legacy news media, who promised to listen and respond to suggestions. Journalists, including some from the Inquirer (Wenzel: 2023: 59n), met with residents and shared stories about Germantown asking for residents’ feedback. Residents could speak directly with reporters, who had begun ‘being responsive’ (Zielinska 2020). Simultaneously, residents were ‘learning what their neighbours [outsiders] were doing to help’ (ibid). Journalists and residents, like the famous rabbis, were striving to approach the truth by ‘holding opposed opinions in tension’.

Verification and summary. Rojas’s article includes all four steps to truth and merits verification. To approach the truth, both Rojas and the subjects of his article began entertaining each others’ opinions. The second section about ‘both-sideism’ and the Germantown Info Hub does not analyse an article, but it does suggest that this new version of impartiality, ‘collective opinion formation’, can incorporate marginalised voices into a larger community. A Jewish wisdom story has drawn attention to this practice, one that journalists may adopt with increasing frequency.

Truth check case 3: Humanity/minimise harm

‘Humanity’ epitomises ‘the public service ethic at the heart of all serious journalism’ (Collinson 2012). The SPJ Code of Ethics defines ‘humanity’ as balancing the public’s opposing needs for information and for protection from information. Protection ranges from warnings about upcoming content like abuse, to withholding names of assault victims. Protection may also include warnings about hidden assumptions. This application of the ethical principle, humanity, overlaps with setting context. Deciding how much context to include requires judgement.

Wisdom story

In ‘A blind man invited to dinner’ (Jerusalem Talmud, Montefiore and Loewe 1960: 411), Rabbi Eliezar invites guests, including a blind man, to dinner. Before they gather, the rabbi ponders how to protect his blind guest from biases that he and his guests may harbour.

Wrestling with self-interest. The rabbi has a dilemma. He knows the Torah passage: ‘You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind’ (Leviticus). Can he stop diners, including himself, from violating the passage and still not look foolish?

Training judgement. To hone his judgement, Rabbi Eliezar imagines being blind and starts feeling empathy. He devises a ruse to create a warm welcome for his blind guest.

Bechirah moment. The rabbi seats his blind guest above himself at the table. The other guests infer: ‘This must be a great man, or the rabbi wouldn’t have seated him so high’ (ibid). Everyone treats the blind man respectfully and he relishes the difference.

Lovingkindness: The Rabbi’s ruse prompts his guests to revise their treatment of blind people proving that touching peoples’ hearts can reverse even long-held assumptions.

The truth check below evaluates two articles published by the Washington Post. One article uncovers hidden assumptions; one overlooks them. In both cases, the assumptions are causing harm and will continue to do so unless addressed. An accountable news outlet, the Washington Post follows a full code of ethics and displays it to the public. Yet, the Washington Post (like the Inquirer above) may occasionally publish an article that fails to implement an ethical principle. The public benefits from being able to spot such cases.

Accountable news

Reporter Jessica Contrera published an article in the Washington Post: ‘Maryland may finally protect child sex-trafficking victims from prosecution’ (2022).

Wrestling with self-interest. Contrera learned that in Maryland between 2010 and 2020, 110 youths were convicted for prostitution and commercialised vice. ‘Advocates and survivors [had] been trying unsuccessfully for years to end these arrests’ (ibid). Should she explore the reason for their failure? Or should she stay quiet and avoid getting ‘emotionally wrecked’, as had happened to her before? (Pyle 2022).

Training judgement. Rather than protect herself, Contrera decided to help these child victims by investigating what had weakened enforcement of child sex-trafficking law in Maryland. She began to conduct extensive interviews. The state’s prosecutors, she learned, had argued ‘that the threat of criminal charges should be kept as an option to persuade victims to testify against traffickers’ (ibid). She conducted further interviews to check the justice of this approach and discovered that the prosecutors were ‘trapping victims between jail on one hand, beatings on the other: “It’s beat into you that you are a criminal ... I will have scars on my body, brain and soul forever”’ (ibid).

Bechirah moment. When Contrera’s article was published, legislators found plentiful evidence for introducing a new law against sex- trafficking. After hearing testimony, the Maryland House passed the Safe Harbor Bill by 126 to 5.

Lovingkindness. Contrera received the 2022 Shadid Award for her ‘deep empathy’ and ‘impactful journalism’ ( Washington Post 2022). She had exposed pernicious assumptions. Her reporting spread lovingkindness.

Accountable news

Rachel Premack published a dramatic piece in the Washington Post: ‘I’m going to be free: Terminally ill Wisconsin teen schedules her death and one last dance’ (2016). Premack reports how Jerika Bolen, a 14-year-old with second-degree spinal muscular atrophy, celebrated her life with a farewell prom leading up to her assisted suicide.

Wrestling with self-interest: Premack had to choose. Should she present Jerika’s final ‘prom’ in the troubled public context of a disabled minor contemplating suicide, or should she present Jerika’s final ‘prom’ without added context, to preserve its heart-wrenching impact?

Training judgement (step not active for Premack): A trained journalist for the Washington Post, Premack would have known the ethical principles, including humanity and setting context. She could have consulted advocates for the disabled. However, Premack apparently chose to focus instead on the gripping tale of Jerika’s last dance. Did Premack’s narrow focus best serve Jerika and others like her?

Bechirah action: (step not active for Premack). Premack’s article pictures Jerika as an appealing, vivacious girl. Jerika blurts out: ‘I’m going to wear punky jewellery’ (ibid). But immediately, concerned readers spoke up. Hannah Soyer, Jerika’s journalist friend, who had the same disability as Jerika, wrote a blog entitled ‘The sick and twisted irony behind “support” for Jerika Bolen’ (Soyer 2016a). Premack, Soyer claimed, had passed along a harmful stereotype: ‘the grand tale of a disabled person’s heroic death’ (ibid). Soyer explains the relevant ethical principle: all journalists must ‘confront their own biases before going into a story’ (Soyer 2016b). The ‘grand tale’ hides biases. Foremost, the tale often disguises the relief of caregivers and family, finally freed of a disabled dependent (Moxon 2016). Deep down, many people believe disabled people lack value and treat them as deserving only ‘pity’ (Shapiro 2023). By contrast, family and caregivers of non-disabled teens grill them about pain management, quality medical care and effective counselling (Moxon 2016).

Lovingkindness. Self-interest turns help into harm. Premack painted an empathetic picture of Jerika’s final hours but left background assumptions still active in the shadows.

Verification and summary. Contrera’s article contains all the benchmarks for truth and merits verification. She overcomes troubling memories of similar assignments in the past. She interviews extensively, discovering assumptions perpetrated by law-enforcement that led to unjust treatment of child victims of sex-trafficking. Premack’s article, by contrast, does not merit verification. Premack’s inattention to context spreads negative stereotypes about disabled people. Combining the story of Jerika’s final prom with a study of its public context would have transformed harmful to helpful impact.

The truth checks highlight some valuable yet often forgotten elements that could be added to each principle of journalism studied here. To ‘accuracy’ add ‘honesty’. To ‘minimise harm’ add ‘protect against hidden yet dangerous assumptions’. To impartiality add ‘hold opposed opinions in tension so they can interact’.


Speaking at the Poynter Symposium on Journalism Ethics, Craig Silverman celebrates the ‘humanity’ of ethics-based news. Rather than ‘the usual concepts of accuracy, transparency and accountability’, Silverman celebrates values such as ‘humility, honesty and fairness’ (Silverman 2012). Let’s look at the truth check to see what that ‘verification with a human face’ can add to Siverman’s view.

Starting with the first US Code composed in the 1920s, journalists used the science of the day, positivism, to write true news. Then as now, journalists thought of true news as ‘bias-free’. To guard against contamination, the first US Code of Journalism Ethics forbade journalists from using their judgement; they could ‘report just the facts’ (Ward 2010: 142).

Some 70 years later, pragmatism replaced positivism as truth science. Pragmatism understood truth as producing ‘well-grounded interpretations’ based on accepted practices (ibid: 147). Alternative news exemplifies the more relaxed, Jamesian type of pragmatism.

Accountable news, conversely, exemplifies the stricter, Peircean type of pragmatism because it uses truth-seeking practices. In light of Peircean pragmatism, professional journalists must exercise their judgement to apply journalism ethics. Professional journalists can no longer shun judgement, they must embrace it.

But, if journalists are allowed to exercise judgement, will their biases not distort the news? Aidan White replies that the journalism ethics themselves guard the news from bias. Each ethical principle ‘constrains expression’ in a way that blocks one or more biases (White 2010). Here enters the unique approach of this essay. The approach builds on a surprise: today’s journalism ethics closely resemble ancient Jewish ethics for truth, and Jewish wisdom stories may be understood to illustrate them both.

Pairing Jewish wisdom stories with journalism ethics sets up a novel way to verify the news, which I call truth checks. Truth-checking reveals the human behaviours underlying ‘constraint of expression’. Truth-checking is ‘verification with a human face’ because it traces the gripping tale of an individual’s effort to constrain self-interest, a requirement for implementing any ethical principle of journalism.

Judaism understands truth not as a system but as a developmental story of a truthseeker (Sacks 2005: 11) including a journalist striving to write true news. This developmental story eminently represents the ‘humanity’ of ethics-based news: Not just a collection of values, as Silverman asserts but a focused journey undertaken by an individual eager to live a full human life or to compose true news.

The first step in this journey involves a wrestling match between opposing inclinations, self-interest and lovingkindness. The outcome differentiates alternative from accountable news. Alternative news entices believers to abet self-interest and follow a ‘higher truth’, an ideology cast as a conspiracy story. The ‘higher truth’ promises quick personal gratification at the expense of others. Accountable news, by contrast, requires journalists to constrain self-interest and observe a truth standard – journalism ethics. The process is slow, but the achievement is solid and helps others.

The second step involves training judgement. Alternative news, again eschewing the way of humanity, shields believers from the need for judgement by offering them ‘absolute truths’. Conversely, journalists and readers of accountable news must constantly use and improve their judgement. They must practise modes of judgement, mind and ‘heart’, like Rabbi Salanter, who recalls the truth standard of Mussar while relishing an extra chance to nurture his students.

Wisdom stories spotlight this special yet often ignored dual aspect of judgement. The stories’ narrative structure has many gaps that truth- seekers must fill with their own interpretations (Goldberg and Zecher 2021: 24). Filling these gaps allows truth-seekers to experience the surprising role of ‘heart’ in judgement, Readers of the wisdom story ‘The Blind man invited to dinner’ are not told what the guests do or say when the rabbi assigns the blind man a great seat. Readers must ‘stand in the shoes’ of the guests and of the blind man to imagine how everyone’s thoughts start to shift. Then, readers begin to feel the role that ‘heart’ plays in judgement.

Lastly, approaching truth invites lovingkindness. Wisdom stories about truth end in this hopeful manner as do many articles of ethics-based news: Contrera’s award, Rojas’ persuasive observations, Kriger’s daring detail.

Pairing Jewish wisdom stories with journalism ethics helps introduce inheritors of the Western Enlightenment to an unfamiliar concept of truth based not in a science of fact but in a story of what makes us human. Truth-checkers learn a practice empowering them to reflect broadly on the meaning of ‘humanity’ and on the value of the ethics- based journalism that promotes it.


1 For the sake of simplicity, this essay will use the term ‘true news’ with the caveat that ‘reliable news’ is the more accurate term since absolute truth can never be reached

2 Bechirah means ‘choice’ in Hebrew and refers to our free will. It’s the point ‘where choice is very alive for you’, where you’re going to make a decision and act on it (Morinis 2009: 22)

3 Comment made by Professor of Philosophy Douglas Edwards, Utica University


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Note on the contributor

Cornelia Brown, Ph.D. University of California at Berkeley, taught Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley as a graduate student, then at Hamilton College in Upstate New York. Later, she taught English at Utica University and is currently doing research there. For nearly three decades, she worked outside of academia, first as a translator of Russian legal documents, then as founding director of a non-profit – teaching ethics-based interpreting across Upstate New York. In this position, Cornelia earned a certificate as an associate healthcare interpreter from CCHI, published and spoke frequently on language access. She is a founding member of the National Council on Interpreting in Healthcare. Inspired by pragmatism, Cornelia has had a long-standing research interest related to this paper, ethics in narrative, language, oral interpretation and journalism. She wants to continue researching and devising public practices to promote ethics-based journalism.

Conflict of Interest

No funding was received for this research.


Dedicated to the memory of my dear friend Charity Scott (1951-2023).

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