As far back as Hippocrates we have been advised to avoid harming other human beings. However, to what extent, if any, is harm an allowable byproduct of communication? As individuals, we probably consider harm to others high on our list of proscriptions; but a great deal hangs on our definition of harm. Do we harm a friend by not telling her the truth about her partner's infidelity? Do we harm ourselves by overeating or drinking too much? Do we harm our children by allowing them to watch television? Do we harm our employers by taking sick leave when we're not really sick? These, and a thousand other questions concerning potential harms, are not as easily answered as we might suppose. And when the harm is potentially great or affects the lives or attitudes of large numbers of people, the answers are even more difficult to obtain.
Communication-caused harm has the potential to affect both individuals and multitudes. The harm caused by the publication of Arthur Ashe's condition was restricted to Ashe, his family, and his friends. Yet all of us are harmed, in a way, when a single person's privacy is violated on our behalf. Remember: The rationale for the news media exposing another's private life is generally the public's right to know. When Princess Diana died in an automobile accident in France in 1998, the blame quickly fell on the media “vultures” who were constantly following her around. Little was said, however, about her courtship of that same media when she sought the spotlight for her own personal messages. And little was mentioned about the seemingly voracious appetite of a celebrity-hungry public that keeps both the tabloids and the “legitimate” media in business.