Thursday, January 22, 2009

Digital Newsroom: You share with one person, you share with the world (whether you like it or not)

If I were feeling cheeky, I might start this post by asking if you have ever sent something extremely private via cell phone or email. A secret? A nude photo, perhaps?

I won't ask, though, because then I'd be obligated to answer the question myself. (It would only be fair.)

Instead, consider the case of the Bothell High School cheerleaders. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer leads:
Parents of two Bothell High School cheerleaders have sued the Northshore School District, alleging school officials erred when they suspended the girls from the team this year after nude photos of them circulated throughout the student body via text message.

The story goes on to reveal that action was not taken to punish, or even identify, the students who sent the pictures. One of the pictures was taken three years ago, when the girl sent a topless picture of herself to her boyfriend.

Here's the story from CBS:

Plenty of sites have already discussed the moral implications. Jezebel writes:
Why did the school administration get involved with something pretty much outside their purview? According to CBS News, the girls were chastised because "The student code of the conduct does say that athletes are held to a higher standard." Then why did the myriad boys — presumably some of whom were also athletes — get off scot free for passing around the naughty photos?

Moral judgments aside, what ethical questions does the this story raise about digital media? With cell phones and computers, pictures, words and audio are infinitely reproducible, and can be shared (accidentally or purposefully) in an instant.
  • What happens when information, originally meant to be private, becomes public?
  • Are journalists obligated to use information, even if it was never intended to fall into their hands?
  • Have the rules that guide journalists changed, now that sharing information is easy, even mindless?
These questions apply to situations far more serious than nudie pics of cheerleaders. In the 2005 London subway bombings, compelling images were taken with cell phones and distributed through mainstream media. Many details of the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib were sent home from soldiers in personal emails, and the pictures were taken as personal items. In each case media outlets had to decide how they were going to present the information.

When that cheerleader chose to share information with a cell phone, was she giving up her right to privacy? When she hit send, was she agreeing to an unstated "you share with one person, you share with the world (whether you like it or not)" rule embedded in digital media?

If using the internet equates means partially giving up your privacy, then media outlets have every right to reproduce private information that falls into their hands. But the fact that different outlets reproduce images differently -- CBS, for example, blurred out the faces of the cheerleaders in the photos when some sites did not -- means that each writer, editor, and publisher still has decisions to make. Just because we can use something, doesn't mean we must.

In some situations it would be unethical not to reveal information, as with Abu Ghraib. That's simply not the case with the BHS cheerleaders. I think the ethics that dictate how to make that call have not changed from traditional journalism. However, with the ease of sharing implicit in new media, journalists may be asked to make that call more frequently. That's why I think strong ethics and clear goals are more necessary now than ever before, whether for a lone blogger or a several hundred person organization.


Mara Auster said...

I think that a lot of times reporters, editors and publishers don't think about what they're publishing as private. Once it's out there it's going to be on almost every other news site and you can't be caught as the only one without it.

I think that the press has gone too far in many cases, like with the cheerleaders. I question whether the story should have been that big. I really don't think that it was necessary to show the photos especially since the girls were underage and a description of what was sent would have sufficed. I think CNN handled it better by blurring out their faces, but does it matter if you can go anywhere else and see them?

I think that sometimes the press does violate trust with using information that wasn't meant for them. If, you uncover some huge government secret or something equally big. Use the info. But for cheerleaders caught sending nude photos to their boyfriends, not quite as necessary. This violation of trust doesn't help the issues that many people already have with the press.

jrichard said...

Good post. These are great questions and you give good consideration to the underlying issues.

Yes, the blurring of technical lines (where consumers have as much or even more equipment than reporters) does make some of the old assumptions about "on the record/off the record" a bit dicey.

And there's a fine line between a professional and paparazzi, one blurring even further with the introduction of such high-quality (and small) cameras, embedded in just about everything.

Good thoughts.

You might want to identify your voice a bit more clearly to give the reader context. You are coming from an interesting (and somewhat authoritative) position in this discussion, and you should make sure the reader understands that.