An Ashamnu for Journalism
Judaism's Days of Awe include ten days of repentance and renewal, beginning at sunset with Rosh Hashanah and concluding with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. There is a traditional confession prayer we read called the Vidui, which is composed of two parts: the Al Chet and the Ashamnu. The Ashamnu (translated as “we are guilty”) is an alphabet acrostic confessional that's recited in plural to represent shared responsibility and culpability.
Collective responsibility is controversial. Most people’s formative experience with is in school, where it typically manifests as an authoritarian disciplinary measure: your entire class has to miss recess because some kid did something stupid, thus forcing the entire group to face repercussions for the actions of someone else—as if we could somehow control their behavior. This is more about collective punishment than responsibility. And it denies individual moral agency and effectively assigns culpability on people for things they did not do. On some level, it could even encourage the very behavior that it’s meant to stop, since there are fewer incentives for not doing the crime if you’re going to be forced to pay the time either way.
At the same time, I have found myself apologizing on behalf of other people–not because I’m at fault, but because I think someone else should apologize and they aren't likely to do so. Maybe you've never told someone that you know the person at fault won’t apologize to them, so you will apologize to them, but you may have found yourself expressing regret on behalf of your industry. Or maybe you have thrown out someone else’s trash, even though it’s not really your job–ideally while also working to address the larger issue so that this isn’t necessary in the first place. (Realistically, others have probably done the same thing for you.) People volunteer for highway cleanups even though they weren’t the ones who littered; people donate to medical funds even though they’re not responsible for the rising cost of medical care; people volunteer to watch folks’ Block Party account even though they’re not the ones responsible for the sorry state of being a woman online. (Here is where I want to quote Dostoevsky's character Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov: "Each is responsible for all.")
I spend a lot of time defending the media: publicly, privately, to large crowds and in hushed tones over coffee or beer in whatever city I find myself in. The media is often unfairly maligned, sometimes people weaponize distrust to target their own ends, and each year, journalists are harassed, attacked, imprisoned, and killed. Often journalists are called out for behavior that non-journalists get a pass for. Sometimes people think journalists are going to engage in behavior that’s much more difficult to do and requires more layers of approval than anyone else in the room.
Every day, people try to stop journalism with violence. We are still reeling from the murder of Jeff German. Many have tried, but trying to stop journalism with bombs or knives or bullets will not work. And a little self-reflection will not knock down this house. So today, let's focus on the problems with our industry with the same fervor that we focus on problems in other industries.
As I write this it’s hours before Rosh HaShanah. I’ve been thinking about Ashamnu—a liturgical acrostic where we collectively confess to collective offenses ranging from A to Z. And I’ve been thinking about it in the context of journalism…and how we are all responsible for not doing more to express outrage, fight for change, and fix our industry instead of just apologizing for it. So I have created my own Ashamnu for the media.
We have failed to include proper attribution for on-the-record sources and left out backlinks for stories we used in lieu of original reporting. We have blamed others even where we have agency. We have failed to contact sources for comment. We have stifled discussion. We have failed to correct errors. We have focused on our own self-interest rather than the public interest. We have ghosted sources, and others, not showing up when we say we will. We have published hyperbolic headlines. We have ignored the impact of our reporting. We have jumped to conclusions (and published said conclusions). We have kept documents and data in our own private caches instead of sharing them with the public or with researchers, trading what is in the public interest for the chance to sell more books or get more buzz for scoops. We have pandered to lurid curiosity. We have misunderstood (or ignored) risk. We have normalized “the way things are” instead of calling for industry change for harmful practices. We have hidden behind false objectivity and both sides-ism in a way that disproportionately harms marginalized people, including low-income people, and people of color. We have participated in, encouraged, or declined to discourage pile-ons and have echoed the majority. We have caused harm under the guise of “just asking questions.” We have recorded without explicit consent, conflating legality and morality. We have silenced and trivialized those who have come forward with their own stories. We have engaged in tone policing. We have left errors uncorrected. We have violated implied off-the-record discussions, gathering information surreptitiously from those without media training instead of using traditional, open methods or seeking affirmative consent. We have whitewashed our own issues internally. We have exonerated people who haven’t actually apologized or changed their behavior (sometimes in exchange for access). We have yielded to our worst impulses by emphasizing speed at the cost of accuracy. We have zealously defended people, practices, and organizations that perpetuate harm.
May we spend as much time changing our industry as we do defending it, and do the hard work of rectifying the harm we, collectively, as an industry has brought about.