Journalists question need to invade personal privacy for stories

By Larry Cornies

The invasion of others’ personal privacy is the No. 1 ethical issue facing Canadian journalists today, according to a recent sampling of their opinions collected by graduating students at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism.

Nearly a quarter of respondents named the invasion of privacy – and the pressures to exceed boundaries of decency and good taste in the course of their work – as the most pressing ethical dilemma of their craft. Among the examples specifically identified by respondents were:
(a) intrusions into the lives of individuals and families during times of grief or stress;
(b) the use of long lenses and ambush interviews in pursuit of stories;
(c) the harvesting of information from social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, posted by naive users unfamiliar with mass media; and
(d) the pressures exerted by newsroom assigners and producers to exploit personal information for the sake of added impact or sensationalism.

Aside from privacy concerns, the most common ethical problems identified by the journalist respondents were:
• the struggle to maintain fairness and accuracy in the face of newsroom pressures to “torque” stories beyond what might be warranted by the facts alone;
• the gradual loss of personal perspective on some types of stories, brought about by the creeping adoption of newsroom or corporate biases and judgments.
• the increasing use of unverified information, prompted by shrinking newsroom resources and the pressure to deliver an increasing number of stories; and
• the growing influence of advertisers on the news agenda.

The responses were gathered between February and April of this year by senior undergraduate journalism students in their final semester before graduation. Although unscientific, the survey produced e-mail and telephone responses from 98 Canadian journalists from every province, as well as Canada’s North. Journalists across the format spectrum – print, online, radio and television – and from small, medium and large markets were included.

In the area of accuracy and fairness, qualitative responses often referred to the tendency of newsrooms to draw conclusions and suggest implications beyond the reach of gathered facts. The push by owners and senior managers to achieve maximum newsroom efficiencies regularly leads to the reporting of information that isn’t properly checked and to the use of fewer sources than would otherwise be indicated by the journalist’s training and expertise, some said. Others responded that the interests of advertisers too often skewed the news agenda, most often at managerial and assignment levels.

Conflicts of interest were cited as the dominant ethical problem by journalists working in small markets. In these areas, journalists frequently referred to the problems of reporting fairly and dispassionately on individuals, such as politicians or public servants, with whom they also had a connection through personal friendships or their children’s educational or athletic activities. These respondents raised questions about how working journalists can be engaged members of their local communities while also having to report on their politics, businesses, education systems and other organizations, such as community service agencies and charities.

The wording of the question posed by students to journalists was: What is the most pressing ethical issue you routinely face as a journalist working in Canada, and can you give an example? (For French-speaking journalists, the question was worded: Quel est, d’après vous, le problème éthique le plus critique auquel vous êtes confronté régulièrement en tant que journaliste travaillant au Canada, et pouvez-vous donner une exemple?)

The class project was approved by Ryerson University’s research ethics board.

Aside from the data their study produced on the views of Canadian journalists on ethical issues, students learned something else about their professional counterparts: They don’t much like answering personal questions, despite the fact that many of their livelihoods depend on others doing so. Students made personal contact with more than 200 journalists across the country for the survey, in many cases following up with telephone conversations. A number of respondents expressed worry about replying to the question from their office computers.
All respondents were given the assurance that no identifying information would accompany the reporting of the survey’s results.

A distribution of the 98 responses into broad categories were as follows:
24: Pressure to invade personal privacy
12: Fairness and accuracy in the face of the pressure to “torque”
10: Use of unverified information caused by the pressure to deliver
8: Advertiser influence on the news agenda
7: Small-town conflicts of interest
6: Undue influence in the newsroom of owners/proprietors
5: Sensationalism
5: Maintaining objectivity
4: Dealing with off-the-record information
4: Dealing with increasingly sophisticated corporate spin
3: Use of anonymous sources
2: Lack of cultural/racial sensitivities in the newsroom
2: Balancing personal life with professional life
1: Trend toward coverage of celebrities rather than news
1: Embedded journalism
98 Total

Larry Cornies holds the Maclean-Hunter Chair of Communication Ethics at Ryerson University in Toronto and is a page editor at The Globe and Mail.