Ethical Lines and Privacy

Listening to Radiolab’s episode about Oliver Sipple, Daniel Luzer said something that particularly stuck out to me. 

“[t]he thing that, like, makes journalism law so complicated, and the things that make an invasion of privacy discussion so difficult is that like…what makes something not an invasion of privacy is not that it’s okay, it’s that it’s politically, you know, relevant…It doesn’t mean that it isn’t rude or that it doesn’t hurt. It means that it’s an appropriate story to publish.”
Luzer touched on something that I think about a lot, especially as someone who wants to pursue a career in journalism– where is the line between newsworthy and just plain invasion of privacy? As Latif Nasser points out, why should journalists be the ones who decides when something is politically relevant? Why is it that, as Nasser puts it, “you just pick up a notepad and pencil and, all the sudden, you have so much more power to say what’s sayable than anybody else?”

It seems to me that this dilemma boils down to a question of ethics, both journalistically and personally. Journalists, as Nasser noted, have a great amount of power when reporting, and, as cheesy as this is going to sound, with great power comes great responsibility. In Absence of Malice, journalist Megan Carter (Sally Fields) is confronted personally by Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman) after Carter reports that Gallagher is being investigated by the FBI in connection with the disappearance of a prominent union boss. Although Absence of Malice is a fictional, self-described “gripping drama,” it echoes back to Luzer’s thoughts on the impact journalists can have on individuals. 

“You write about everybody being investigated?” Gallagher asks Carter when he firsts confronts her. 

“Everybody we find out about,” Carter replies.

“What do you write about when the investigation’s over and the guy’s innocent?” Gallagher asks. There’s an awkward pause, and Carter replies that “[t]hey never tell us when the investigation is over.”

I’m not going to reveal the whole plot of the movie in this blog, but Carter’s reporting causes a domino effect in Michael Gallagher’s life, as well as the people close to him. Absence of Malice speaks to, albeit dramatically, Nasser’s point in the Radiolab podcast– journalists have immense power in deciding who and what gets reported on, and who or what they’re reporting on don’t have too much of a say in it. 

This seems bleak, right? But Luzer responds to Nasser’s question of journalistic power with an equally important point. Who would you rather have decide it? This question for me circles back to the first couple of weeks in this class discussing freedom of speech. I felt, (feel? I’m not quite sure if I have a definitive answer on this, stay tuned,) that hate speech shouldn’t be protected under the First Amendment. But Rachel pushed back on that, reminding me who has the power at the moment to decide what hate speech is– the Trump administration. Do I really want to leave it up to Donald Trump and Bill Barr what qualifies speech as hateful and therefore can be prosecuted?

Nope.

As Luzer notes, this is not a perfect system. But leaving the power to discern what speech is legal and what speech isn’t up to any one administration in power sets a dangerous precedent for freedom of speech, and more broadly, the First Amendment. I think too that we live in a climate now where journalistic accuracy and integrity are being more scrutinized than ever before, and the quality of reporting has followed suit. Leaving the power of speech to the people seems like a good place to start to me.

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