Reporting on Religious Angles in the Madoff Case

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

It’s a classic question: When is it relevant to include someone’s race, ethnicity or religion in a story?

Journalists covering the Bernard Madoff scandal were faced with this question when trying to decide how to cover the religious angle of the Madoff scheme. Many stories about Madoff talked about his hefty donations to Jewish organizations, and subsequently made reference to his religion. The Jewish community responded, fearing that Madoff’s wrongdoings, and journalists’ mention of Madoff’s religion, would perpetuate stereotypes about Jews being miserly and obsessed with money.

I wrote a Poynter Online column on Friday about this and tried to shed some light on how journalists can cover the religious aspect of the Madoff scheme. After reading a New York Times article about Jews’ response to the scheme, I decided to get in touch with Clark Hoyt, the Times‘ public editor, for the column. He wasn’t in the office on Friday, but he responded to some of my questions via e-mail. Here is the intro to my piece:

Mention the name Bernard Madoff and words like “fraud,” “money” and “Wall Street” probably come to mind. For many in the Jewish community, however, the Madoff scandal isn’t just a story that details a major scam; it’s a story that fuels ignorance about centuries-old stereotypes.

Madoff, who is Jewish, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Jewish causes, which suffered significant financial losses as a result of his wrongdoings. He committed what’s called an “affinity fraud” — a scheme in which con-artists target their own ethnic, religious or professional groups.

Given the nature of such a fraud, those covering the Madoff case are faced with a challenging question: How do you report on the religion/ethnicity of a criminal and the group he’s affected without making it seem as though you’re perpetuating stereotypes?

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The article has gotten some interesting feedback.

How well do you think journalists have covered the religious angle of the Madoff scheme? Do you think it’s necessary for them to cover it?

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