Letter to the editor: Martha’s Vineyard Times

To the Editor:

Regarding “The porn-studio-on-Martha’s-Vineyard story that never was” by Nelson Sigelman, May 24 2018: As Nelson’s antagonist in this retelling of a three-year-old disagreement, I have a stake in how the conflict is portrayed. CJR could have used its resources to illuminate an important principle of ethical community journalism. Instead, in my view—as publisher and proud owner of The Martha’s Vineyard Times, with my wife Barbara, and as people with deep concern for the quality, fairness, and usefulness of the work of our community newspaper—Nelson still misses the point, and CJR, whose editors never tried to contact us, misses the story.

At issue is my interpretation and application of the “do no harm” principle in a community newspaper setting. Important across a very broad swath of ethical thinking, “do no harm” is especially important for newspapers because of the disproportionate power we wield to harm individuals, whether we are The New York Times or The Martha’s Vineyard Times.

Stephen Klaidman and Tom Beauchamp, in their book The Virtuous Journalist, write about “the moral responsibility of journalists to avoid unjustifiable harms to subjects of their stories.” The code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists makes the same point in explicit, prescriptive terms, including the caution that “pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”

The story here is about my judgment that Nelson’s reporting didn’t pass the “do no harm” rule. Nelson argued that his story was accurate and therefore deserved to be published. By contrast, I believe that accuracy is necessary but not on its own sufficient, Nelson’s certainty (and well-known glare) notwithstanding. The subject had broken no laws; there were no complaints, no police report, no lawsuit. Publishing this story would have embarrassed the subject and her family with no discernable community benefit.

An understanding of the 2015 story shouldn’t be clouded by the changed circumstances applicable three years later. In 2018, the calculus had changed. The homeowner had filed a federal lawsuit; there were documents available, and therefore something meriting reporting and publication. On Martha’s Vineyard these days, many homeowners rent out their homes. What can go wrong in such situations (and according to the homeowner in this suit, did go wrong in this case) is of interest to our community. The suit, as a way to remedy what she saw as a breach of contract, would also be of interest.

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The calculus involved is of course subject to interpretation, which is precisely the point: All journalists and publishers, print and digital, bear the responsibility to consider the context, understand the effects, and debate the pluses and minuses, and in the end we as owners and publishers need to make the call. We won’t always get it right but we certainly owe everyone involved our best thinking.

Which brings me to my puzzlement and disappointment that CJR missed the opportunity to talk about the serious issue here: the continuing importance and complexity of defining and practicing ethical reporting and publishing in a media world simply exploding with ambiguity and risk for all parties.

I simply don’t get CJR’s deep dive into poor reporting and editing, but I’m comforted every day knowing that The Martha’s Vineyard Times’ leadership team and our dedicated, always stretched-thin staff, cited two times this year for publishing the best weekly newspaper of its size in New England, would never practice journalism so heedlessly or so amateurishly.

Peter Oberfest
The Martha’s Vineyard Times

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Peter Oberfest is publisher of The Martha’s Vineyard Times.