In examining their own ethics, the media this year have revisited one problem far more than any other: When is it legitimate to look into people's privacy as a matter of public need, and when is it just sensationalism?
Nearly one in four of this year's Media Monitor columns dealt directly with privacy. It also arose as a side issue in other columns, such as those on matters of taste.A privacy discussion leads the Society of Professional Journalists' annual Freedom of Information report, out last week. (It asks whether we now have an excessive concern for privacy that interferes with the people's right to know.)
And privacy is by no means uniquely an American concern. In Britain, for example, one of the reasons Parliament is demanding more "accountability" of the press (Media Monitor Nov. 26) is that reporters for one of the racy national tabloids talked their way into a hospital room for a deathbed interview with a television comic, a clear case of intruding on his right to seclusion.
- THE RIGHT OF PRIVACY pivots on the argument that something uniquely one's own, such as a name, face or opinion, should not be exhibited to public view without consent. It suggests that having the inner layers of the self peeled off is dehumanizing.
Essential to our personhood is our ability to control our own intimacy. Yet we have to live an associational life, and often what we would like to hold private is actually a matter of wider concern.
- THIS CONFLICT between the individual's need for privacy and the public's right to know became a legal concern only in the 20th century. Exactly a hundred years ago two famous lawyers, Louis Brandeis and Samuel D. Warren, repulsed by how the newspapers had covered Mrs. Warren as a socialite, argued, in the Harvard Law Review, that there ought to be a "right to be let alone." Since the turn of the century most states, including our own, have responded to this argument by enacting some privacy laws.
However, public figures haven't much claim to privacy. Privacy law also doesn't protect someone involved in a news event. Privacy is therefore usually more an ethical than legal problem.
- ONE WAY TO DEAL with whether the public has a right to know is to ask what rights to privacy different classes of people in the news can rightfully assert.
For instance, many newspeople would agree that information about innocent victims of crime or disaster and their relatives, as well as relatives of the prominent, should be used only when these people freely give permission. On the other hand, virtually any information about a convicted criminal might legitimately be published to help us understand his acts.
There are lots of gray areas. How far should the media go in reporting on the private life of a person merely suspected of a crime?
- HERE ARE SOME of the privacy issues this column looked at this year:
- A major question in two columns was whether or when rape victims should be identified. Attitudes have been changing, never so much as in 1990. Many newspapers that a decade ago would never print the name except when homicide was involved now are willing to do so when she asks or consents to its use.
That seems a sensible compromise, and it may even help ease the stigma
- When should names of victims or hospital patients be used freely by the media? One case dealt with the Elko hospital's reluctance to release names of the injured in a Sky West airliner crash landing. I felt that the names of people in a public event should be released and applauded hospitals that have drawn up policies on identifying patients.
But another case was the unsuccessful attempt of physicians to protect the confidentiality of a 16-year-old patient in a so-called "artificial lung" implant at LDS Hospital. Some general data about the patient were relevant, but the name and some other particulars were not necessarily. Some reports, especially in the girl's Texas hometown, played on these so heavily the case was a media travesty.
- How much of the plaintiff's charges in a civil complaint, which has been properly filed in court and is virtually immune from a libel privacy action, should be used in a story before case goes to trial? The issue in one column was whether the media should have quoted generously from a sexual harassment allegation. I thought not, because the same safeguards surrounding criminal cases, which are investigated before a complaint is signed, are not present.
- Can a victim's dying be portrayed without being exploitive? The issue arose especially in the case of Hank Gathers, the great Loyola Marymount basketball player, who collapsed on a Los Angeles court. How much of his final moments should have been shown? I thought the Salt Lake media showed considerable restraint, all agreeing that showing what some called "the death throes," was unnecessary.
- Should stories about the deaths of prominent people describe them warts and all? Story obituaries ordinarily portray the deceased's positive achievements; they are what makes him or her newsworthy; if a failing had a pronounced impact on that life, it should be reported.
- Should names of juvenile offenders be printed? I wrote that most media, certainly all in Utah, agree that confidentiality is usually a sound idea, essential to the youth's rehabilitation and not to be broached unless the crime is so heinous that the juvenile court releases custody to the district court.
- Should a public relations agency, in this case Intermountain Health Care's, compile monitoring reports on reporters' and editors' personal lives? Conclusion: intrusive and unnecessary, and in the sense that it suggests an attempt to manipulate the media, dangerous.
When revealed, IHC's reports did, however, have a positive feature. In turning the tables on the press, IHC showed how sensitive people are to having their private lives probed.
I like a recent observation by NBC's Tom Brokaw: "Were it left to me, I would arrange for all newcomers to this grand calling of journalism to be subjected to a newspaper or television story about their personal background, their qualifications and motivations. It is a ritual that should be repeated every 10 years or so so they can have a keener appreciation of the effect of their work on others."