Does Privacy Still Exist?

With Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and all other social media sites so prolific in the world today, and everything from baby’s first tooth to break ups to suicide attempts being documented on individual pages, the question of privacy is ever prevalent. Does sharing the intimate details of one’s vacation, wedding, first date, or breakup constitute giving up the right to privacy? Some argue that these things are shared within a group of friends and as long as privacy settings are in place, these things stay solidly in the private domain.

Putting aside the obvious fact that things placed on the Internet are inherently not private given all sorts of government surveillance issues, hackers and simple breakdowns, do people really have the expectation of privacy on Facebook, Twitter and the like? After all, is every single one of your 784 “friends” in your intimate circle? Do you personally know all 1,416 of your Twitter “followers?” Would you call them up on the phone and tell them all about the hangover you have from New Year’s Eve? The real answers to these questions are more telling about expectation of privacy and rights to information than ever, and the issue has yet to truly be addressed. Case after case appears on newsfeeds regarding lawsuits over private information being made public, whether by journalists or bloggers, or simply other users of these sites. But where is the line? Even further, is it a different line for journalists than the public Tweeter on the street?

To determine if something is truly private, it helps to discern what privacy “is.” It certainly means something different to everyone, but for these purposes, a general idea is a starting point. The chapter on privacy in Doing Ethics in Media, by journalism ethics professors Jay Black and Chris Roberts, provides several different attempts by philosophers to describe privacy. While each of these presents its own issues when dealing with social media, they are still worth considering. Ancient Greek life was divided into public and private domains. What one did in one’s home was completely separated from how life was conducted in public. While this worked then, can it really apply when the details of life at home are plastered all over the Internet with every Facebook status or Foursquare check in? As Morton Levine described in “Privacy in the Tradition of the Western World,” privacy is “the maintenance of a personal life space” where one is free to “exercise and experience his own uniqueness.” A good definition, but what if the exercise of this uniqueness places that information in the public domain? Returning to Sissela Bok, we find her definition of privacy even more confusing in the social media realm. Bok says privacy is the “condition of being protected from unwanted access by others… .” Would posting something to a social media site, where privacy limitations are communicated to users, still be unwanted access? After all, it would seem the “unwanted” part would dictate prudence in posting.

Perhaps most succinctly, Thomas Cooley described privacy as “the right to be left alone.” While certainly true, and probably something we all dream of from time to time, does this take into account actions within a public or near public sphere? Cooley’s concept was expounded upon by Warren and Brandeis in their Harvard Law review article, “The Right To Privacy,” which helped push evaluation of the constitutional right to privacy most Americans enjoy today. Interestingly, Warren and Brandeis were actually lamenting the overzealous press and the deteriorating integrity of what passed as “news.” Specifically, they took aim at the gossip and tabloid-style stories that were emerging from distasteful investigation practices and yellow journalism. It is interesting to consider what Warren and Brandeis would think of our “information on demand” world, and the intricate details we can find in the tabloids on what celebrity’s daughter had a temper tantrum at daycare. The duo held firm that gossip had no place in news, and that it could “only be procured by intrusion into the domestic circle.” What would they think about that domestic circle encompassing 800 “close” friends? They also believed that increasing technology and the ease with which reporters could get information caused people to become “more sensitive to publicity.” This may still be the case, but with more conversations being held on cell phones in public and more and more details of private lives being tweeted to the masses, would Warren and Brandeis still believe that “solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual?”

The Washington Post once published an opinion column by Michael Chertoff, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, where Chertoff discusses instances where private individuals tweeted or otherwise posted about the activities of others. Chertoff’s opinion is that we could be heading toward an “informant” state, bringing to mind thoughts of Stalinist Russia. While this may be extreme, it does raise the question of whether these particular activities were a breach of privacy. The short answer may be that they had no expectation of privacy, since the subjects were in public. However, did they need to consider that their words or actions may be sent worldwide by an “innocent bystander,” or could they at least expect a smaller sphere of publicity? Would things have been different if they thought there were journalists in their immediate vicinity?

While Chertoff’s opinion is addressed at individuals infringing on individuals, it certainly poses a difficult question for journalists. Does the expectation of privacy change when a journalist is present? And if it does, in our technology age, should it? If journalists see or hear something while not acting in a professional capacity, what responsibilities do they have with regard to privacy? The question does not only arise in overheard phone conversations and inadvertent Instagrams. What about the possibility of running across a particularly newsworthy bit while looking at Facebook? If you happen to be able to see the posts of a “friend of a friend,” and they could lead to a story, what do you do? Does this person have the expectation of privacy?

The “rules” for this dilemma are somewhat determined by the U.S. Constitution and have been upheld in numerous court cases over the years. People are entitled to an expectation of privacy in certain circumstances and not in others. Generally, anything that is done in the public domain is not considered private, and thus is fair game for the press. But again, the rules can fail the journalist here, because what is and is not private cannot be defined in traditional ways any longer. Are setting your social media privacy settings the equivalent of “drawing the blinds” to protect the view of your living room from the street?

Courts in New York have ruled that Twitter does not have an expectation of privacy, so presumably anything found on Twitter is fair game. There has been very little to do with Facebook, but it is a matter of time. So as a journalist, can you use this information? The SPJ Code of Ethics insists that, as journalists, we “seek the truth and report it” while trying to “minimize harm.” If the information is accurate, and newsworthy, should you use it? What if is harmful? That is the balancing act that we try to sort through when we consider who wins and who loses. Of course there is always the possibility that the information will get leaked by someone else, without the objectivity a journalist can bring. Would this cause more harm? If others in the world are not as concerned with the ethics of the “use or not use” dilemma, should journalists reconsider what they will or will not do? If journalists continue to hold fast to the old definitions of privacy, and are more careful than ever in the current environment, then they themselves could end up the losers. Even more so, the public could lose, because the information ends up as gossip rather than well-rounded news coverage. If we begin to draw the privacy line at Facebook and Twitter, then the actual grant of true privacy loses as well, since there is no limit to expectation.

For the journalist, the question of what it is worth comes down to the story, the right to publish, and the right to do so ethically. Until we come to a decision on those expectations within the social media sphere, the decision to use this information will always be pitted against the possible backlash, including public scorn, lawsuits and the fear of being fired, rather than the goal of objective story telling.

The answer may lie in a less literal exploration. From a journalist’s point of view, the true gauge of whether to use this information should come from within. Turning again to the utilitarian point of view, which drives certain parts of the SPJ Code, the worthiness of an action should be determined by the amount of good it would bring when weighed against the harm it may inflict. True invasion of privacy, in its true sense will almost always cause some sort of harm. This is a “bad” act producing a “bad” outcome. Reporting the truth may also eventually cause harm, but this is a “good” act producing a “bad” outcome. Which is better? In the context of Facebook, Twitter and the like, while we wait to see what the courts will eventually decide, or where society will draw its own line, the good must outweigh the bad. If the information is “out there” for anyone to see, and therefore for anyone to share, it may be our responsibility to find it, corroborate it, prove it and report it. At least then there is a potential for some objectivity. There is a possibility to “minimize harm.” There is the hope that the information can escape from the realm of gossip into legitimacy, if it belongs there.


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