by ELIYAHU FEDERMAN AND JAMES MOXNESS
Multiple news outlets, including the Independent and Slate, recently linked to a story, originally posted in English on YourJewishNews.com, claiming that a Hasidic group banned soy products because they 'lead to homosexual sex.'
The problem with this outlandish story was that it was completely unverified; none of the outlets actually interviewed or did any on-the-ground investigation. Ultimately the story was retracted, but the damage was already done.
Misreporting on insular religious societies like the Amish or Hasidic Jews may be due to a number of issues, from the difficulty of contacting individuals for interviews to the fact that insular communities are less likely to challenge a story. Or, just as likely, it may be due to biases about obscure religious customs and practices that predispose outsiders -- which journalists and TV producers almost always are -- to be less critical about the information they receive. But whatever the cause, the media's responsibility to present accurate information shouldn't suffer.
While cable news outlets sometimes air nonsensical speculation or rumor-as-news, as was the case with the Boston Bombing, there's a glaring failure of journalistic integrity when it comes to reporting on obscure religious groups. It's tempting to believe that insular religious societies are treated by some as a "free pass" from engaging in good journalism.
And the line between news, documentary, docudrama, and entertainment is frequently blurred beyond recognition. Reality shows such as TLC's "Breaking Amish" on and the Discovery Channel's "Amish Mafia" are scripted sensationalism, total fabrications of authentic Amish life.
"Amish Mafia" gives the impression that it represents historic reality, yet even a cursory Google search will reveal that has been broadly debunked. The town's local District Attorney, Craig Stedman, told MSN News that he received letters from people asking why he wasn't cracking down on the show's alleged illegal activities. His response: "No one in law enforcement and no one in the justice system is saying there's any basis in fact that there are events occurring consistent with what I understand the show portrays." In other words, the show is a fabrication.
"Breaking Amish," despite having the trappings of a docudrama, is also a misleading portrayal of the Amish people. People who knew the characters of the show took to a Facebook page, "Breaking Amish The Truth," to share photographs demonstrating that various cast members weren't even active members of the Amish community.
And the soy story is just one example from coverage of the Hasidic world. NBCNews.com published a video that deceptively edited a Hasidic Rabbi to give the appearance that he was seeking to cover-up and handle sexual abuse allegations within his community, without involving outside authorities. In reality, the unedited transcript revealed that the rabbi had advocated for "work[ing] together hand in hand with the authorities." After the unedited transcript was published exposing the chicanery, NBC removed the segment and apologized for any misunderstandings.
Obscure religious groups can be very newsworthy, of course, particularly when the line between self-destructive or harmful behavior and unusual but largely harmless traditions is blurred. In the most extreme examples, shining a spotlight on a dangerous religious movement, such as that of Jim Jones or Heaven's Gate, is not only newsworthy, but a call to give protection and a voice to those who have none.
So feel free to serve douse those Cheerios in soy milk or top your pizza with soysage so long as we keep in mind that sloppy reporting doesn't only damage the credibility of the news outlets, it creates tolerance for a lack of intensive investigation, diverts attention from legitimate news, and can unfairly malign largely defenseless insular religious groups.
Eliyahu Federman has written on religion, culture, business and law at Reuters, The Forward, Forbes, USA Today and elsewhere. James Moxness graduated this year from Harvard Law School.