A campus newspaper editor, a popular and prolific member of the Facebook social networking community, posts caustic comments in her profile about various folks around town.
A student uses his Xanga blog to publish his heartfelt views of the quality of local TV news in general and the local TV station where he is interning in particular-views that are considerably less than complementary. At one point, for instance, he expresses the wish to tell his supervisor that he thinks her entire career is "a f***ing joke."
Another group of students and recent alumni decide over beers to start a local magazine. The monthly publication features amply endowed female students on its covers, some more fully clothed than others; its articles, many of them lengthy stream-of-consciousness rambles, run a constricted gamut of topics - all the way from drinking to getting laid. The magazine is distributed locally; the affiliated Web site is published globally, like everything else online.
The First Amendment protects them all. It gives Americans the right to speak freely, leaving the responsibility for speaking wisely or well largely up to each individual. Nothing new there.
What is new, however, is that those speaking unwisely or not so well can and do easily publish their words in a venue that is available to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Indeed, doing so seems to have become second nature to the Internet and instant messaging generation, to people comfortable with "cookies" and unperturbed by public telephone conversations with intimate acquaintances.
Privacy, as both a legal and ethical issue, typically involves someone else's invasion of personal space or affairs, the unwanted intrusion into what ethicist Lou Hodges calls "circles of intimacy." In today's environment, in contrast, we abrogate our own privacy by increasingly conducting our personal affairs in public. The effects on opportunities for individual growth and moral development remain to be seen.
But that's a topic for another day. The imprudent use of public forums for personal expression also raises ethical issues for media professionals that are worth exploring. Each of the three situations described above offers its own set of concerns, and each is exacerbated by the public nature of the forum for publication of what are, or should be, essentially private messages.
In the first one, involving the newspaper staffer's Facebook postings, the central ethical issue is one of conflict of interest. Despite their adamant defense of the First Amendment, journalists routinely (and, usually, voluntarily) sacrifice some of the rights it accords in order to avoid the perception of potential partisanship and consequent loss of credibility. For example, most journalists refrain from joining political organizations or from participating in public demonstrations even though the First Amendment guarantees their right to peaceable assembly. Some journalists voluntarily disenfranchise themselves, registering to vote as independents and thus giving up their right to cast a ballot in primary elections. In doing so, they acknowledge that even a private act, such as voting, often involves leaving a public trail, such as a declaration of party affiliation.
The editor almost certainly would not have published her views in the newspaper. To her, Facebook was a private space, and expressing her opinions there was comparable to bitching to her roommate or gossiping with her friends. But as the publisher reminded her in demanding that the posts be removed post haste, the illusion of privacy online is just that-an illusion. And the public trail left by Facebook postings takes far less work to find than a political party registration.
Students around the country are learning to their dismay that not only their buddies but also campus and law enforcement officials have-and use-free Facebook accounts. At Penn State University, 50 football fans who happily posted pictures of themselves to a Facebook group titled "I Rushed the Field after the OSU Game (and Lived!)" were startled to find themselves in hot water for starting a riot when campus police identified them through the photos. At other campuses, university officials have prosecuted students who posted photos showing themselves drinking in the dorms(Read, 2006).
For journalists, of course, potential legal issues-such as, in the case described here, libel-are only part of the problem. Surveys consistently show that most Americans think the media are biased. When an editor publishes comments about potential sources or subjects of newspaper stories, even when the publication is in another medium, her actions are likely to add weight to that perception. The fact that Facebook access requires a password does not change the fact that postings to it are published to millions of people, and are the same few mouse clicks away as the Web site of the newspaper itself. It is a place for public, not personal communication, and the ethics of public communication should apply. For journalists, those ethics include avoiding any actions or associations that can compromise integrity or damage credibility. Yes, the editor deleted her postings.
The student blogger who trashes his internship employer on his blog also blurs the bounds between private and public communication, between what one might say to one's friends and publish to the world. But setting aside the student's debatable judgment and taste, the ethical onus in this situation is on the media organization that provided the internship rather than the poster.
Journalists are, by nature and by professional necessity, defenders of free speech, but they also are notoriously thin-skinned when criticism is aimed at them. Yet ethical precepts call for journalists, no less than others whose professional mandate involves service to the public, to be accountable both to members of that public and to one another. Certainly, the folks at the TV station might wish that the intern had communicated his feelings of derision less publicly-or, better, that he had not had the experiences or held the opinions that prompted him to communicate such feelings at all. But blogs are teaching media organizations a great many things about criticism and how best to respond to it-criticism that comes from within the newsroom as well as outside it. It is a lesson they need to learn pronto to survive in a no-holds-barred communications environment, one that raises the emphasis on public accountability to whole new levels.
How best to meet the ethical obligation to be accountable will vary by situation. In some cases, a public explanation may be best; in others, as here, internal efforts to address the student's concerns, large and small, may be the more appropriate course. But simply ignoring the issues would be shortsighted. Journalists can do themselves a great deal of good by opening their own decisions and operations up to the public gaze, and the unlimited time and space afforded by the online medium offer the ideal platform for doing so. Some organizations are seizing the opportunity, such as through editorial board blogs that a number of newspapers now offer. Others are not. More should.
In this particular case, the student apologized for any offense or harm he may have caused to individuals and moved his post to a place where it was only accessible by password, making the views not quite private but considerably less public than they originally were. He did not, however, delete the post, nor did his (former) employers demand that he do so. Unlike the newspaper editor's posts about members of the community, which jeopardized the impartiality of the daily news product, his posts were personal opinions about the media business. The fact that he happened to be working within that business at the time should not chill his speech about it. (Of course, his desire to land a job upon graduation is another, more Machiavellian, matter. It seems safe to say he won't be working at that particular outlet. It also seems safe to say he doesn't want to.)
Finally, there is the issue of the student-run magazine, with its cheesecake photos and sophomoric ramblings from booze to sex and back again. Here, the students are not employees; it is their publication, and they are solely responsible for creating and disseminating its content, both in print and online. And here, the ethical issue involves that content rather than any public (or private) communication about it.
This one, too, is protected by the First Amendment. The students have every right to publish their ideas in whatever medium is available to them. But as publishers, and as ethical human beings, they bear a responsibility to treat people with respect. Their choice of material, freely made, demeans both themselves and their subjects-particularly women, both specifically and generically-and thus is inherently unethical.
hat said, such publications have no doubt always made the rounds of college towns. The difference is that they once were distributed only to a few similar souls within the campus community. They were, in effect, only quasi-public publications, available to a very limited local audience. Their potential to harm was similarly limited. Now they are globally accessible.
Moreover, online publications tend to long outlive their tangible cousins. While this particular print magazine seems to have died a quiet death as its producers have become either bored or broke (or both) and moved on, the Web site remains readily accessible. Pages of a magazine stuck in a closet box yellow and fade harmlessly until they are tossed out with the rest of the detritus after graduation; online pages do not. Unless someone bothers to delete them, these pages will remain a quick Google search away when their creators (and their subjects) look for a job, apply for graduate school or think about starting a family.
These three situations are quite different-yet each presses us to think in new ways about public, quasi-public and private communication in a world of open-access publishing. The opinions we might express to our closest friends become public when we express them in a networked environment, where they can be seen not only by our closest friends but also by distant acquaintances, legal authorities and the rest of the world, as well. Our freedoms continue to accord us rights to say and to publish whatever we wish. But the contemporary media environment demands that we consider the ethical ramifications of doing so in much broader ways than in a past where the line between private and public communication was far brighter.
Read, Brock (2006, January 20). "Think Before You Share." The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved March 6, 2006, from: http:chronicle.comweeklyv52i2020a03801.htm.
The above article was published in Media Ethics, Spring 2006 (17:2), pp.1,13-14.