When does the free flow of information that serves the public good outweigh the rights of individuals to personal privacy? That is a balancing act journalists regularly face.
Sometimes that question is applied to public officials who are accused of wrongdoing that involves their personal behavior. Sometimes the privacy issue involves celebrities who seek media attention and bask in the spotlight, only to reject news coverage when it might tarnish their image. And, sometimes the privacy concerns apply to the average citizens who are suddenly caught in the news by virtue of a tragedy or their connection to an otherwise newsworthy event.
The decisions individual journalists and news organizations make on these matters can have profound consequences. The challenge for journalists is to be professionally skilled and appropriately aggressive in seeking meaningful information that serves a legitimate public need to know, while being respectful and compassionate to those whose personal privacy may be intruded upon.
Journalists should ask themselves some important questions as they balance this public need to know with an individual's right to privacy.
- What is my journalistic purpose in seeking this information? In reporting it?
- Does the public have a justifiable need to know? Or is this matter just one where some want to know?
- How much protection does this person deserve? Is this person a public official, public figure or celebrity? Is this person involved in the news event by choice or chance?
- What is the nature of harm I might cause by intruding on someone's privacy?
- Can I cause considerable harm to someone just by asking questions, observing activity, or obtaining information even if I never actually report the story?
- How can I better understand this person's vulnerability and desire for privacy?
- Can I make a better decision by talking with this person?
- What alternative approaches can I take in my reporting and my storytelling to minimize the harm of privacy invasion while still fulfilling my journalistic duty to inform the public? For instance, can I leave out some private matters while still accurately and fairly reporting the story? Or, can I focus more on a system failure issue rather than reporting intensely on one individual?
Created through RTDNA Foundation's Journalism Ethics Project by Bob Steele, Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at The Poynter Institute