Private Property: Keep Out.

Kathrine Nero

Kathrine Nero and D&Z host Yoshie Vinton discuss privacy and media

A sign with those words would leave no question in any reasonable person’s mind that going any further would be an invasion of privacy. Unfortunately, in the world of journalism, signs are rarely that obvious. Lines between public and private are blurred, and revealing information gathered in that gray area encompasses a great deal of modern ethical discussions in newsrooms.

Journalists have to navigate these cloudy waters on a regular basis: whether to reveal a source, when to share inside information, when to keep something off the record, or even if the manner of information gathering was ethical in the first place. Though journalists have the responsibility to inform the public, individuals have a right to privacy. The meeting of those two sides is where the ethical questions live.

Sometimes it’s not just a matter of if information should be shared, but when and how much.

Like the rest of us, journalists have to ask themselves what information is private, even in the world of oversharing on social media, of GPS in cars and phones, and in the new world of artificial intelligence. We have more information than ever before, which brings with it more questions about privacy.

The Legal Right to Privacy

Samuel Warren & Louis Brandeis formulated the legal right to privacy in 1890, foreseeing at the problems with new technology. That technology? The portable camera. 

Their prediction:

“What is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.”

Imagine what they would think about today’s technology, with doorbell and traffic light cameras, recording devices in the palm of our hands and targeted ads on our computers that come to us as a result of our last Google search.

Today, journalists have at their disposal reporting techniques of which Warren and Brandeis couldn’t have dreamed, but the legal definition they created still holds true.

They saw the invasion of privacy could happen in four ways:

  1. Intrusion upon a person’s seclusion or privacy
  2. Public disclosure of private facts
  3. Publicity that puts a person in a false light
  4. Misappropriation of a person’s likeness

Not every state upholds each point verbatim, and since much has advanced since the late 1800s, illegally obtained information is another category of privacy violation recognized by some states.

And though the law settles many ethical questions before they’re even asked, some examples require more of a discussion. Is a journalist invading a suspected drunk driver’s privacy by using social media photos from his visit to a bar earlier that night? Should a photographer take photos of a celebrity’s child without a parent’s permission? Once sensitive personal data has been leaked, is it fair game to report?

Right to Know vs. Need to Know vs. Want to Know

Newsrooms are places of great discussion and analysis, and many of these decisions surrounding privacy can be made by answering:

Does the public have the right to know, the need to know, or does it just want to know?

The right to know is a legal definition, wherein the media have the same right to the information as anyone else, even though sometimes they’re the only ones who can find it. Think open records laws and government watchdog reporting. Seems pretty black-and-white, right? Generally, yes. But just because it’s legal doesn’t make it ethical. Sometimes, sensitivity needs to be exercised. Revealing the name of a person accused or indicted of sexual assault involving a family member can potentially reveal the victim as well. In this case, privacy for the victim supersedes the public’s right to know.

The need to know is an ethical definition, and therefore, often the most muddy of the three, since philosophical cases can be made for both sides. Knowledge allows the public to be adequately informed, the hallmark of journalism. If the CEO of a privately-held company gets a $3m bonus while employees are taking 20% pay cuts, should the CEO’s salary be revealed, even though she has the expectation of privacy? Does the public’s need to know win out?

Wanting to know is based solely on curiosity. We might not need it, and in some cases, might not want it, or even have the right to it. I think of the examples on social media of ‘click the link in bio for more.” If it was truly important, we wouldn’t have to leave the site to find it. It’s not all bad, though. Who among us hasn’t taken a quiz to find out what Disney Princess we are – or clicked on a listicle of the top 10 ramen places near us?

Privacy concerns don’t stop there, though. Intrusive or surreptitious techniques used by journalists like hidden cameras, online identity deception and recording devices also bring about questions. What about unearthing social media posts or yearbook photos from decades ago? Does this violate a person’s privacy? Does it satisfy the public’s right to know? Or is it merely curiosity?

Journalism self-regulates

Many of these questions do not have cut-and-dried answers, which is why media organizations have spearheaded efforts to regulate these gray areas themselves. The Society of Professional Journalists, for example, lays out very specific parameters involving many issues of privacy in its Code of Ethics. PBS Standards outlines various forms of privacy violations that range from physical to philosophical.

Since the beginning, the journalism industry has constantly evolved, from papers to radio, television to digital, social media to artificial intelligence, and with each advancement, new ethical considerations come to light. Careful dialogue among media members is the cornerstone of good journalism, as is delivering truthful, accurate, informative storytelling while respecting the privacy of those they are covering.

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