Privacy vs. the Public's Right to Know

A question journalists often confront is how much of a person’s private life should be revealed in an article. Just because a reporter can pull up a source’s mortgages, stock holdings, or perform a Google Earth flyover of his home doesn’t mean that’s ethical practice. It also doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unethical either. The key is whether a person’s private life — his personal habits, sexual preference, medical condition, odd interests — is newsworthy and should therefore be published. These can be vexing decisions to make.

If you are writing about a gay bar destroyed in a fire, do you release the names of deceased patrons? What if you learn a homemaker in the community had been a prostitute many years earlier. Do you run it? If a woman accuses a man of rape do you publish his name if charges haven’t been filed, and do you investigate the sexual history of the woman making the allegations? If a local judge rents a porn video, is that news?

Some real life examples:

» In April 1992, USA Today contacted retired tennis star Arthur Ashe to confirm a rumor he was HIV-positive, which Ashe, who had been infected by tainted blood during heart surgery several years earlier, had tried to keep secret. When Ashe couldn’t convince editors to drop the story, he held a press conference to announce it himself. Although many believed this was an invasion of Ashe’s privacy, the newspaper justified its actions by claiming a “conspiracy of silence has not served the public.”

» Oliver Sipple became a hero in September 1975 for helping thwart an assassination attempt on then President Gerald Ford. In the ensuing press coverage, he was outed as being gay and his mother disowned him.

The Internet adds an ever-increasing number of ways to expose people — with potentially embarrassing facts reappearing on searches for years. The NYU Journalism Department faculty believes that privacy should never be taken lightly and recommends that student reporters not inquire into sources’ personal lives unless doing so is relevant to the story they are researching. The fact that a local politician has patronized a gay bar might be his private business; the fact that a local politician known for anti-gay stances had patronized that bar might be the public’s business.

Masquerading: The vast majority of the time journalists should make clear to the people they are interviewing that they are journalists. State your name and affiliation up front; i.e., Jane Smith, New York University Department of Journalism, and your purpose in contacting a source. In highly unusual circumstances there may be good reasons for not identifying oneself as a journalist. For example, if observing police officers interactions with protestors at a rally, or reviewing a restaurant or videotaping counterfeit merchandise in New York’s Chinatown, identifying yourself as a reporter may not be appropriate since it could affect the type of treatment (or quality of food) you receive. Likewise, if conducting an undercover assignment, especially if outing oneself as a reporter could result in potential harm. But these are rare examples.

Web: Often reporters scour discussion threads, message boards, blog comments and online communities seeking ideas and information without identifying themselves as journalists. It may be permissible to cite the information if it shows, say, how some YouTube users reacted to a specific video on the site. Obviously it is not always necessary for a journalist to identify herself in that circumstance. But if a reporter wishes to use information from a blog, e-mail thread or other Web sources, she should be mindful that deception is endemic to the Internet. If at all possible, the reporter should attempt to contact the person who posted the information, identify herself as a reporter, and try to persuade the source to provide full identification.

Undercover reporting: Going undercover is a time-honored tradition in American journalism. Done well, it can help nail corrupt politicians and cops on the take, expose fraud and racism, and shed light on the plight of women in repressive societies. Done unethically, it can violate a citizen’s privacy through unwarranted surveillance and intrusion into people’s private business, and erode public trust. As a society would we want reporters functioning as a sort of auxiliary police trying to catch our transgressions?

Before engaging in any undercover work for a class assignment, consult your professor. Carefully consider whether your reporting could violate criminal or civil law (See the Legal section for more information). Weigh the potential harm involved. Could relying on subterfuge get you arrested? Could it lead to violence? Does it invade someone’s privacy, especially in a non-public area like a home or an office? Are there laws in your state against recording without a person’s permission, or specifically against using hidden cameras? Might it undermine the validity of your story? These are serious questions to consider.

The San Francisco Chronicle applies three tests to undercover assignments before editors will give the go ahead:

1. Is the resulting news story or photograph of such vital public interest that its news value outweighs the potential damage to trust and credibility?

2. Can the story be recast to avoid the need conceal one’s identity in gathering the information?

3. Have all other reasonable means of getting the story been exhausted?

Writing about children: Reporters should seek permission from a parent or guardian before interviewing children on any controversial subject. Getting a quote from a 12-year-old on the opening of a new swimming pool would not require such permission; getting a quote on allegations that a school is unsafe would. When the call seems close, the reporter should discuss with a faculty member (or editor in a professional setting) in advance to determine the ethical course.

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