Privacy and reporting on personal lives

This section addresses these ethical issues:

Privacy is not what it used to be. When so many share so much of what they do and think on publicly accessible channels, the boundaries between public and private communications are open to interpretation.

For many journalists, whether and to what degree to report on private aspects of a person’s life begins with that person’s expectations of privacy.

Celebrities know a loss of privacy is a cost of fame. Politicians and other public servants know their power brings public scrutiny, and they carry that awareness into many of the decisions they make. That doesn’t mean, however, that either group doesn’t complain at times about what they consider overzealous coverage of their personal lives.

When journalists consider disclosing elements of a person’s private life, they should be mindful of any distress it might cause. They should be humble toward their power to disclose it. However, the high public stake in the lives of public figures tends to result in more aggressive reporting of these people’s personal lives. Many journalists choose not to report on a suicide, for example, unless it is the suicide of someone in the public eye.

A journalist’s attitude toward covering public figures will also inform her decisions about using long lenses, drone photography, photographs through windows and other means of capturing images of such people (see “Photos and Video” module). Some journalists draw a line between spying on a celebrity in a private place where the subject expects not to be seen (e.g., the celebrity’s home), and in situations where the newsmaker knows he is being observed (standing in front of a window at home when he knows photographers are outside) or should not expect total privacy (a supposedly private party in the backyard of his estate with 1,000 invited guests).

Ordinary, “private” citizens are another story. When journalists consider reporting on the personal life of someone who does not already live in the public eye, a careful consideration of both the news value of the disclosures and the potential harm those disclosures might cause can serve as a guide.

In most cases, when ordinary people draw the attention of journalists, it is because they are in some way associated with a high-interest issue or event, such as a crime. In these situations, many journalists set certain rules to guard against disclosures that might unfairly damage personal lives or, worse, turn out to be wrong. Journalists might not publish the name of a suspect until he or she is charged with a crime, for example (laws sometimes determine what can be said, but sometimes the journalist is free to make that decision). Reporters might take extra care around the personal lives of children and teenagers, who are still in the care of their parents and who act with less independence and consciousness than adults. (See the “Children/ Coverage, Images and Video” module.) Or they might not feel a need to further interview or disturb private people who have already spoken to one news organization, or who seem to be under great stress.

Journalists might also make a point of explaining to their interview subject how far the story or images are likely to be distributed and how long they will remain available in archives.

With the advent of social networks, what was once inaccessible conversation between small groups of ordinary people can become very accessible to journalists.

There might be news value to these conversations, particularly if they appear to reflect a buzzworthy trend in public sentiment. But pulling out particular quotes by particular people can raise issues, as it might put a big spotlight on a comment never meant for such exposure.

To some journalists, anything ordinary people share publicly, including on social networks, is publishable, just as anything that occurs in a public space could not be expected to be kept private. To other journalists, what is public and what should be published are two different things, and the act of publishing–publicizing, in effect–is an intentional act that should be treated with care.

The definition of “public” online is also complicated. A public tweet is viewable to anyone who looks for it, but what if the person tweets only to 10 followers? And what about a Facebook post that can be seen by 10 people? 100? 1,000?

Another complication when it comes to material shared online is identity. A profile may say the person is 30. But what if, in fact, she is 16?

Non-public people publish much online that is easily findable. To avoid incorrect or unfair disclosures, many journalists choose to contact people before they report on that material, gathering context. Others, particularly in breaking news situations, rush to publish whatever is found. The difference, for many journalists, is in the news value. Did this person do something that makes traces of his digital life– both text and photos–fair fodder for rampant speculation? The bar, for some, may be higher than it is for others.

This main author of this section is Monica Guzman.

See also the modules in this project on “Children/ Coverage, Images and Video,” “Mental Health and Suicide,” “Photos and Video,” “Sensational and Gory Material,” and “Social Networks.”