The Ethics of Privacy
Clifford G. Christians
In nearly every survey of public opinion and the media, privacy is a premiere issue if the press wishes to main its credibility. The laws safeguarding privacy are impressive, but legal prescriptions are an inadequate foundation for the news business. Privacy is not a legal right only but a moral good. For all of the sophistication of case law and tort law in protecting privacy, legal definitions do not match today’s challenges. Merely following the letter of the law presumes the law can be determined accurately. There are several reasons that establishing an ethics of privacy that goes beyond the law is important in the gathering and distribution of news.
First, the law that conscientiously seeks to protect individual privacy excludes public officials. While the body of law developed to date condemns intrusion on personal matters, it also allows the exposure of all secrets bearing on public concern. In general, the courts have upheld that political personalities cease to be purely private persons, in addition to ruling that First Amendment values take precedence over privacy considerations. Court decisions have given the media extraordinary latitude in reporting on public persons.1 Even falsehoods relating to official conduct have been protected, unless made with actual malice or reckless disregard of the facts. Though uncertainties exist, the Supreme Court typically chooses not to curtail the press’s freedom to provide indispensable service to democratic life. The press has thus been granted the legal freedom to treat elected officials unethically. Though the law does not explicitly rule out falsehood, innuendo, and exaggeration—or invasions of privacy—human decency and basic fairness do.
Second, the press has been given great latitude in defining newsworthiness. People who are exposed to the public eye by events, even unwittingly, are