Journalists and Privacy

Dan Gillmor wrote an article about journalism and privacy in which he describes telling fellow journalists at a conference that they might have to give up some of their investigative tools for the sake of the privacy of individuals.

Gillmore thinks journalists can help further the cause of privacy by reporting on violations of it more. One of the problems, however, is that there is rank hypocrisy about privacy at the core of most newspapers — namely they casually violate the privacy of others while jealously guarding their own privacy to extreme limits. I have a friend, for example, who is a journalist and constantly complains how corporations and foundations act so secretly, with most of their decisions hidden from public view. But, of course, this is also how editorial boards at newspapers act.

Journalists love to trumpet it when they get an insider at a corporation to hand them private corporate documents, for example, but go absolutely bananas when police ask to see unpublished crime photos. For example, newspaper photographers in Lansing took hundreds of pictures of students rioting at Michigan State University, but refused to let police examine photos that hadn’t been published citing First Amendment protections. When a company tries to prevent documents from being publicized based on First Amendment issues, however, they usually get exocriated by the press.

In fact, in large measure, reporters and newspapers often seem to think that the First Amendment is largely their sole providence — reporters apparently often have no compunction taking actions which they would wail loudly about if done by any other social actor.

I read a case a few months ago where a journalist ethic committee actually censured a reporter. The reporter had essentially came upon the unlocked car of an important person he was doing a story on and stole documents from the person’s car. This is an extreme example, to be sure, but it is representative of a journalistic culture that sees itself as superior to other social institutions, which in turn justifies extreme measures (anytime anybody suggests that reporters should limit, say, the number of hidden camera investigations, the reply from journalists is always a variation of an “ends justify the means” argument — “but we couldn’t get that story if we don’t violate somebody’s privacy.”)

This is part of the reason why the reputation of journalists has fallen so much in recent decades. Many people realize that journalists are often as cutthroat and willing to cut ethical corners as the companies and individuals they’re writing exposes about.

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