Mr Essay, Research Paper
What responsibility does the press have in keeping the public informed while at the same time, respecting the privacy and sensibility of individuals?
The press has the power to influence virtually all areas of our lives. Words and images are combined to produce various messages and meanings. All that is presented to us undoubtedly has an effect; whether it be positive, negative or neutral. In some countries the press is seen as an instrument for exposing the truth, and in others it is seen as an obstacle to the truth and a mechanism for propaganda.
The Press Council is an industry-funded body designed to ensure journalistic standards and to deal with complaints concerning the press. The body does not have any power to enforce punishment on those who do not comply with the set standards. The Council relies on voluntary adherence to the standards and the admission of mistakes publicly.
It is virtually impossible for the press, in all situations to follow all principles set out by the Press Council. Press Council Principle No. 3 states that “readers of publications are entitled to have news and comments presented to them honestly and fairly and with the respect for the privacy and sensibility of individuals”. It further states that “the right to privacy should not prevent publication of matters of public record or obvious of significant public interest. Rumour and unconfirmed reports if published should be identified as such”. In theory, Press Council Principle No. 3 has good intentions, but can it really be taken into account in all situations? Definitely not. The balance between the public’s ‘right to know’ and the right of an individual’s privacy is extremely delicate.
Hurst and White (1994) state that “to a member of the public, intrusion into privacy can be seen as unethical conduct, irrespective of the status of the person whose privacy has been violated. To a journalist, intrusions are often ethically justified because a particular case appeals to the more potent principle of the public’s right to know”. Andrew Belsey (1992) makes three distinctions between people and their right to privacy in Ethical Issues in Journalism and the Media.
It may be the responsibility of the press to keep the public informed while at the same time respecting the privacy and sensibility of individuals, but should all individuals be shown the same respect? The behaviour and functions of the press are regularly debated by committees, councils, the courts, the media themselves and the public. Andrew Belsey (1992), in Ethical Issues in Journalism and the Media states that there are three groups of individuals: personalities (identified as those who are created and sustained by publicity), people who are involuntarily forced into the public eye, and politicians (and those of similar power status in society). These groupings or categories distinguished by Belsey are by no means exhaustive. They simply assist the press create a point of reference when distinguishing whether a ‘newsworthy’ piece of writing is in fact a ‘matter of public record or obvious or significant public interest’.
Belsey (1992) states that “people, who tend to live according to the maxim that all publicity is good publicity, cannot consistently claim the protection of privacy when they discover the negative side of the Faustian contract”. On the other hand, the second group of individuals mentioned above are those who are ’shoved’ into the spotlight without actually wanting to be there. These people include victims of tragedy and disasters, winners of prizes and events, people who have been through amazing operations or those who have perhaps experienced more than the ‘average’ citizen. These people do however have a greater ‘right to privacy’ than the first group of individuals. “Belsey (1992) sates that “when people are involved in public events there can be no objection on privacy grounds to the press reporting what is already known, together with non-intrusive background or follow-up stories”. However, the act of being ‘non-intrusive’ is a subjective matter. What is ‘non-intrusive’ behaviour to one person may be totally unacceptable to another.
People who have standing and power within society, and are accountable and answerable to society (such as politicians), should expect to get at least some attention from the press. Yet, when a person decides to become a public figure, where is the distinction made between what in fact is ‘public life’, and what is ‘private life’? Public life and private life often collapse into each other.
One only has to open the newspaper or turn on the television to be bombarded by a plethora of information about investigations and scandals into the private lives of politicians and other influential public figures. The behaviour of these people in their private lives cannot often be kept separate and distinct from their public lives. For example, is it in the public’s interest to be notified of the private dealings of politicians, if their dealings can be linked to issues about which the public has a ‘right to know’? For example a local politician may be accepting gifts from a local businessman in return for encouraging fellow members of parliament to push forward local development plans. If these are confirmed reports (as opposed to rumours and allegations), then it is the responsibility of the press to inform the public above and beyond protecting the privacy of that individual.
Hypocrisy and double standards revealed by public figures such as politicians should also not be tolerated, and therefore exposed by the press. For example, if a politician’s election platform is the importance of family values, the sacred nature of marriage, and the immorality of adultery, it is expected that the politician will live up to that political platform. If he/she is proven to have committed adultery, then the platform on which that particular politician stood has been destroyed. In this case, the public has the ‘right to know’. The politician has given up the right to keep his/her private life separate and distinct from his/her public life. “It would not be right for the media to cover up real or alleged sexual scandals, nor to blow them up out of all proportion” (Belsey, 1992). If a sex scandal needs to be exposed then it must be reported honestly, and as fairly as possible.
It is all very easy for the Press Council to write out a list of principles, but how can Press Council Principal 3 be applied to reporting a rape case where a man is convicted of raping his daughter. If the father was identified upon his conviction, the victim (his daughter) would also be automatically identified. The privacy of individuals, according to the principle, should be protected. However, by doing this, the public’s ‘right to know’ (also a part of the Principle) is being violated because the right to privacy should not prevent publication of matters of significant public interest. Should the public be informed about criminals living in their neighbourhood? Eg. the rapist.
The ethical responsibility in respecting the privacy of the children and the responsibility of keeping the public informed for their own safety must be weighed up.
Journalists, as members of the press have obligations to their employer and the community in which they work. They have responsibility for the material they write and the effect it has, and will have on the people they write about both directly and indirectly. Journalists also have a duty to themselves.
The once valid use of the defence: ‘the public’s right to know’, in the US and Australia in the 1950’s regarding Freedom of Information (FOI) is often used by the media to “justify those media actions dictated solely by competitive pressures” (Hurst and White, 1994). “The quest for healthy circulation figures breeds a powerful desire to scoop the opposition or to publish a story with sensational impact that titillates readers”.
It is this sensationalism that is sought after by some journalists which causes the greatest invasion of privacy irrespective of whether it means stealing the right of people to grieve, or to deal with traumatic situations such as war and death.
Most ‘newsworthy’ stories that are broadcast by the media revolve around tragedy. Photographs, especially of the dead are part of a disturbing trend to focus on disasters. One image that remains vivid in the mind of many people is that of a polish girl pictured in a field grieving over the blood splattered body of her older sister who was killed by the Germans in 1939. This image was recently re-published in the 75th Anniversary issue of Time Magazine in March 1998 (nearly 60 years after the photograph was taken). The photo opportunity was obviously foremost in the photographer’s mind as opposed to rushing to the girl’s aid.
In February 1996, The New York Times ran two photos (of two different situations) of parents identifying the bodies of their dead children. The media was present to publish the moment in which their greatest private grief was expressed, the moment that their children’s bodies were identified.
“The first photo was taken just as Maria Fernandes was shown the body of her 10-month-old son killed in a Brazilian mudslide. The second photo showed two fathers, Vincent Balejado and Joseph Nunez, identifying their children drowned in a ferry boat disaster in the Philippines”. (Mattimoe, 1996). In order to clinch the photograph that most graphically conveys the grief of the scene a photographer may take several rolls of film of several different families.
Very rarely is the media confronted by these families for having, as one father stated: ‘robbed us of our grief’. In the United States, one editor was confronted by the father of a family who was pictured with the body of one of his children after being dragged from a drainage canal. This rarely occurs because people are often situated a million miles away from where the photos are published and are not given the opportunity to respond to the publication.
Due to the frequency of such photographs, they often go unnoticed. Little opposition is expressed regarding the distaste of such photographs. Would this be the case if the body of a public figure were to be photographed and paraded on the pages of newspapers and magazines? Why is it that the publication of photographs revealing the most private grief of ‘unknown’ families not be regarded as a violation of privacy? Photographs of public figures taken in similar situations to those in third world countries for example would more likely be regarded as tasteless.
One of many invasion of privacy stories that vividly showed the lack of respect that is shown by the press towards the privacy and sensibility of individuals while keeping the public informed is reflected in the following example described by News Photographer in March 1997.
A reporter discovered that the local police station was gathering evidence about an old murder case and that the skull of a six-year-old child who was murdered two years earlier had been found. The reporter visited the station and asked the police chief to remove the skull from a box and tilt it so that the photojournalist could take a close-up shot of the skull.
Although the tape taken was regarded as unsuitable to broadcast by some people in the newsroom, the news director overruled the objections and decided to screen the footage regardless. Newsroom staff and the family of the victim (who were not consulted) saw the footage for the first time when it was broadcast on the 6p.m. news. The story opened with footage of a memorial service for the young victim along with footage of the family and photos of the child before the child’s death.
The memorial service cannot be regarded as part of the ‘public right to know’. It was a private affair that the public did not need to be informed about. However, it was not the footage of the memorial service that disturbed the family, it was the close-up shots that followed of animal remains originally thought to be that of the victims, followed by a frontal close-up of the tilted skull facing directly towards the camera while a voice-over identified the skull as belonging to the victim.
Broadcasting images of the skull was recognised by the courts as having a devastating emotional impact. The court stated that the shot of the skull was ‘intentionally included to create sensationalism for the report’. Staff of the station later admitted that the images were unnecessary, not newsworthy, and should not have been aired. The station also recognised that the family should have been consulted, and later apologised for their behaviour. Apologies are often made too little too late when the emotional impact of what has been aired is realised, or even thought about.
Although the decisions the press must make regarding what is investigated and what is reported are difficult, it is important to note that the press often broadcast stories for the purposes of entertainment rather than for simply informing the public. Due to the competitive nature of the industry, ratings, circulation, profit and the speed at which news is conveyed (in an attempt to provide information first) are often given priority over respecting the privacy and sensibility of individuals. The press does not often realise the importance of the role they play in society and the responsibility and care that accompanies that role.
1. Belsey, A. & Chadwick, R. (Eds.). (1992). Ethical Issues in Journalism. London: Routledge.
2. Elshtain, J. (1996). Bad Publicity. The New Republic. v. 215, n7 p.25.
3. Hurst, J. & White, S. (1994). Ethics and the Australian News Media. Melbourne: Macmillian
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4. Mattimoe, E. (1996). Private griefs public. America. V. 174, n11 p.8.
5. Sherer, M. (1997). When emotional distress leads to the courtroom: extreme behaviour by news media is rare. News photographer. V. 52, n3 p.12-13