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For Sake of a Story: When Journalists Cross the Line–Invading Privacy

JOURNALISM LAW DISCUSSION QUESTION: In writing sensitive stories, reporters often face complex questions involving legality, ethics, fairness and privacy. Please discuss how you as a modern communications professional would deal with the following situation, involving former tennis star Arthur Ashe, and the media’s decision to reveal – against his wishes – the news that Ashe had been diagnosed with AIDS. Please discuss both the legal and the ethical aspects of this situation. Among other questions, please say whether the newspaper had the legal right to print this information without Ashe’s consent, and whether this raises any legal issues involving libel, defamation or invasion of privacy.

The questions posed in the Media Ethics Case Study, “Arthur Ashe and the Right to Privacy” by Carol Oukrop at Kansas State University, offered a glimpse of several issues: transparency in journalistic coverage, invasion of privacy, public vs. private individuals, whether or not the story is newsworthy, and whether or not a person who was once a public figure, will always be a public figure—and can be covered as such.

There are many ways the newspaper could get around the legalities of publishing a piece without Arthur Ashe’s permission. Falling back on the First Amendment is, of course, core to that. If you went by the black and white issue of the law, of course, the newspaper had the legal right to publish the piece.

What can save that newspaper from libel and liability issues would depend on a few things: the angle they take, the way content was written, word choice (fact vs. opinion), its intent and whether once a person is a public figure if s/he will always be considered a public figure. It might take into consideration the public’s right to know. What are the parameters of that?

However, what makes a piece news worthy? Why is it news in the first place? After some of the cases we’ve read, there is no telling whether the issue of “legal right to publish” is the actual issue at stake. Getting the news out faster than the next guy, with total disregard for the individual vs. the paper’s exclusive, can influence—and cloud—a publication’s bottom line.

Today, it seems there is a very blurry line when it comes to journalistic standards of excellence, ethical reporting and transparency.

There is a person’s right to privacy. Pushing the envelope often times crosses those ethical lines.

Peter Prichard, editor of USA Today, said, “When the press has kept secrets . . . that conspiracy of silence has not served the public. . . .”? “Journalists serve the public by reporting news, not hiding it…”

What does Ashe’s health have to do with better serving the public? USA Today tried to justify its coverage saying that exposing Ashe could free him and his family “of a great weight.”

It also said Ashe could help the public better understand and defeat AIDS. What gives the paper the right to even suggest such a thing? What if he didn’t want to? What if he wanted to do so within his own time frame? Or after his daughter was a little older? What right did USA Today have to place THAT burden of being an AIDS spokesperson on him?

USA Today was wrong in pushing Ashe against a corner. He had hoped to keep the news private, especially for his child’s sake. An editorial Oukrop cited from The Christian Century (April 22, 1992) called this a “tale of media irresponsibility and corporate greed,” an example of “entertainment posing as information”—and I agree.

The media invades privacy issues, especially when public figures are at the center.  Ashe had, over the years, earned much respect for his professional accomplishments, as well as his involvement in human rights/struggles—and many other agendas that impacted communities. Being an AIDS spokesperson did not have to be thrust upon him, even though he handled the media frenzy and aftermath with grace and dignity.

Oukrop’s last source truly sent chills down my spine. Fred Bruning wrote that, “The wishes of a stricken man cannot substitute for editorial judgment… but the objective is clear. Personal concerns are secondary to the principles of a free press.”

What “principles” formed the basis for USA Today’s decision? When there is such a fine line between ethics and freedom of the press, a media watchdog needs to sniff things out to ensure that the “principles” of the First Amendment are not taken lightly or abused. Otherwise, the action can backfire and a publication can lose its credibility as a viable media outlet. 



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