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Ethics of Journalism: Individual Privacy vs. Public Right to Know
The issue of journalism ethics is controversial since it requires making moral decisions and solving ethical dilemmas. On the one hand, every person has the right for privacy, and journalists should not violate this right. On the other hand, the public has the right to know about something important in their society. Therefore, journalists often face the dilemma whether to publish private information or conceal it. It is difficult because the aim of a journalist is to reveal the truth but not to hide the real events. Contemporary journalists have access to various recording devices and photo and video cameras. They can get any data, any evidence about the celebrities’ and public persons’ lives as well as interesting and intimate stories of the ordinary people. Sometimes, they publish private information for the common good; however, there are cases when they use this data for their personal benefits. Although the ethical decision-making process is difficult, every situation should be regarded separately to make the right and most proper conclusion. Thus, the issues of the individual privacy and public right to know pose an ethical problem because they can harm and benefit simultaneously; therefore, every journalist should act according to the Code of Ethics.
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Individual Privacy vs. Public Right to Know: Pros and Cons
Today, many journalists decide what kind of information is private and what belongs to the public interests. Some of them are more loyal and humane that others; some journalists may do everything to find out an interesting piece of information. They do not distinguish any limits and publish everything they consider observable. The victims of such pressmen/women complain of violation of their privacy. However, many journalists have different points of view regarding this issue. They believe that “the public’s right to know and the need to shine a light on vice and corruption supercede all other considerations”. Nevertheless, they often cross all ethical boundaries and interfere with the private lives of people who have nothing to do with vice or corruption. The reason is human interest and curiosity and nothing more. The question arises: where are the limits and what is considered private and what – public? The main purpose of the Code of Ethics is to clear up, explain these issues, and find out the truth.
The Society of Professional Journalists has its personal Code of Ethics. The collection of rules defines which actions are moral and which are inhumane and inappropriate regarding people’s privacy. One of the essential rules is seeking for the truth and reporting it. However, not every truth should be available to the public ears and eyes. Only that news that has some influence on people’s lives should be revealed. For instance, Kim Kardashian, or any other celebrity, is a person people are interested in; they wish to know what she is wearing and doing; where she is going, and what happens in her private life. Nevertheless, her private life does not affect other people’s lives, and nothing will change, if the public is not aware of such details. Thus, the celebrity’s privacy is violated, and he/she suffers for no purpose since his/her private life is in public view. This situation is immoral because it has nothing to do with the public’s right to know. However, there is another issue that seems rather controversial and causes the ethical dilemma. For example, Stephanie Williams writes about the Transport Minister David Campbell who was noticed, “leaving a gay club,” although, in everyday life, he pretended to be a family man. The journalists made a liar of him, telling that if he lied about his values, he could lie about everything else. This issue is divisive because many journalists consider that such information is the public’s right to know, and the others argue that one’s sexual orientation has nothing to do with the public and business. Therefore, if sexual orientation affects a person’s way of making a decision, it may be considered a public’s right to know. However, if it does not influence a person’s business, it should not be revealed to the public since it is immoral. Thus, every journalist makes the decision him/herself, considering whether to publish the information or not.
People often confuse the meaning of the public interest and information in their interest. Human beings like to interfere with other persons’ lives since they are curious by nature. However, not every privacy should be regarded as the public’s right to know. Some cases should remain private or, if they are published, the participants’ anonymity should be preserved. For instance, if a woman has been raped, there is no need to reveal her name since it can cause other problems in her future life. Nevertheless, in the article “When Public Should Remain Private”, Deni Elliott writes, “When someone is charged with a crime, the name of the party is relevant.” He means that both parties should be exposed or both parties should preserve anonymity. If a person accuses someone of a crime, why should his/her name be concealed? This question is contentious, and many people could claim that they would rather hide the information than reveal their names. Some of them have fear about the consequences since they think that the offender will take vengeance on them after the imprisonment. Sometimes, things like this do happen, so the journalists cannot force the witnesses to make their name known to the public. Another example is the following. A person accuses another person of committing a hard crime; however, there is a lack of evidence, and the police still investigate the case. In such a situation, the journalists cannot reveal the names of both parties, even if the public’s interest is essential, since the truth is not discovered so far. However, if the journalists know the truth and conceal it, the court may compel them to identify the confidential sources to prevent harm to society. Thus, not only do pressmen/women decide whether to reveal or hide information but also society and government can tell them what to publish or hide.
Sometimes, journalists like to turn around the truth and change the real course of events. For instance, “Oliver Sipple became a hero in September 1975 for helping thwart an assassination attempt on then president Gerald Ford”. However, the press presented him as gay, and afterwards, his mother forswore him. Instead of showing him from a positive perspective, he was turned into a man with some sexual disorders. The journalists were inhumane and immoral; they mixed the private life of that man with the public asset. They violated the Code of Ethics that states that they should “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort”. Probably, Oliver Sipple’s life could become better if the journalists had not revealed him as gay. However, they acted not for the public’s interest but wrote what was interesting for the public to read. As a result, they ruined one person’s life for the other people’s amusement. Thus, if the journalists know that the published information causes some damage to the person, they should stay loyal and do not interfere with his/her privacy. Therefore, they need to make a distinction between private and public lives. Ingram and Henshall write that when person is at work, he/she is an employee, and when he/she finishes work and goes home, this part of life is private. Thus, if something happens at work, journalists can regard this occasion as public. Moreover, such people as politicians, business leaders, servants, and other individuals who are considered to act for society and its citizens, are always under observation. That is why it is important to be aware of the limits between the public affairs and private lives. For example, if an individual is a perfect chairperson, but his/her family life seems to be coming unglued, journalists should not reveal this information since the man/woman performs his/her public duties well.
What about Facebook and Twitter?
Contemporary journalists often use private information taken from the social networking sites for their personal purposes. While Twitter is considered “inherently public,” Facebook offers privacy options for its users. Many celebrities and public individuals use Twitter for sharing their private information with their fans and electors. Thus, journalists can exploit these posts since they are already public. However, if Facebook guarantees privacy for its users, it should also guarantee that no data would be taken without the allowance of the social network and the person him/herself. When thinking about this issue from the ethical perspective, one can distinguish three types of Facebook pages: personal profiles, fan pages, and invite-only Facebook groups. It becomes obvious that fan pages do not need permission for sharing their posts, and journalists can use information freely. However, if some information is posted on a private Facebook profile, a competent pressman/woman would contact the user and ask his/her permit to publish this data. Nevertheless, it is not so important whether the information is taken from the social network or any other source. Journalists must ask for permission, and only if their article or message will save someone’s life, the exception can be made.
Ethical Decision-Making in Contemporary Journalism
While thinking about the news story, journalists should make ethical decisions in two areas: the content and the way it is gathered. The attitude toward public individuals and common people may differ. The most difficult issue, which always causes the dilemma, is tragedy and grief. Gail Hulnick provides an example of such a story. A little boy fell from his grandfather’s lap, while the two were on a riding lawnmower. As a result, his leg was cut off. The reporter came after the ambulance left for the hospital, and got pictures of the weeping grandfather. After several debates, the pictures were shown in the TV news report. The mother of that boy was furious since the journalists had imputed blame on the grandfather. The situation could be different, if a newsman had asked permission to take a picture or film the aggrieved individual. Probably, the mother of the boy would agree to give an interview or make several photos. However, the journalists did not do it, and their behavior may be regarded as unethical.
The ethical decision-making is an uneasy process and it can be divided into several stages. The first stage is deciding whether to show the news or not. The aim of every journalist is to look at the situation from a different perspective and compare the consequences for both the victim of the episode and the audience. If the benefits for the public prevail, the story should be revealed. However, in the case with private lives, it is always necessary to ask for the permission to record some information. The second stage is to choose the right method of gathering information. Sometimes, it is important to hide and make photos at a distance, and sometimes, one can take pictures openly. The third stage concerns anonymity and changing the names of the victims. It may cause several dilemmas since every situation is different and it needs to be regarded differently. For instance, children’s names should be always concealed, when the accidents are related to the crime. However, it is often necessary to expose the name of the offender. When the private information may affect the public negatively, they have the right to know it.
Another ethical dilemma occurs when the person who was filmed threats the journalists. For example, he/she can tell that he/she will commit suicide or find some compromising evidence, if the story is published or broadcasted. A journalist has to make a decision whether to disclose the truth or keep one’s personal safety. However, if every situation is treated differently, people will accuse journalists of an injustice. Therefore, some legal prohibitions and limits should be created to distinguish what kind of data should stay private and what should be revealed. The Code of Ethics includes several rules, but the government often does not control the omitted information. Despite all of this, the aim of every journalist is to publish only true, complete, and accurate story and try not to offend any participant of a story.
The issue of the individual privacy and public’s right to know needs ethical decision-making and it often becomes the reason of an ethical dilemma. Journalists seek for the information for their news stories and frequently interfere with private lives of celebrities, public personalities, and ordinary people. Sometimes, such interference may be useful for the audience. However, if it does not affect other people’s lives, the decision about its publishing should be well considered. If a journalist realizes that the story can provoke a burst of positive emotions, he/she should ask permission to promulgate the data. In most of cases, news about private lives cannot be revealed without allowance. Nevertheless, every circumstance should be considered separately to choose the most ethical decision.
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