Achieving the balance between a free media and an individual’s right to privacy

Self-reflection on achieving the balance between society’s right to freedom of the media, and the individual’s right to privacy/ a good reputation and a fair trial, particularly in the era of social media.

Journalists are often described as being upholders of the “Fourth Estate”, in that they aim to serve the public interest by scrutinising those in power. Yet in doing so, it is easy for journalists to invade upon an individual’s right to privacy. Finding the balance between a free media and individual privacy is a vexed ethical issue for journalists.

Media freedom is necessary in a democracy, as it provides checks and balances on institutions of power to ensure they are held accountable to the public. Without a free press, abuses of power from governments, the courts and other authority figures could go unnoticed. This notion of journalism acting in the public interest, is often used as a defence when journalists are accused of unethical breaches of privacy. But in some cases, media organisations are ostensibly serving the public interest, but are actually just trying to create the juiciest story.

One example of this is with Adrian Bayley, the man convicted of the murder of Jill Meagher. He was named by the media as soon as he was charged, even though this is a serious ethical breach. The intense media attention focused on the Jill Meagher case, meant media organisations did not hesitate to name Bayley, as it was dominating the national news agenda. If the case was not so high profile, Bayley would not have been named, but this highlights a double standard applied to high profile cases or those involving celebrities.

But do high profile cases or ones involving people in the public eye make it okay for different privacy rules to apply? An argument can be made that these cases are especially relevant to the public interest and thus demand greater scrutiny. But as well as this, media organisations will always publicise these cases because they sell papers/gain viewers/increase website traffic etc. When in doubt, journalists should look to the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) Journalists’ Code of Ethics.

This outlines “the public’s right to information” as one of the fundamental principles of journalism. Yet it also reminds us while “many journalists work in private enterprise, [they] all have these public responsibilities.” It is difficult for journalists working for private media organisations to always remain ethical, when they can be pressured to pander to commercial interests. The code states respect for personal privacy is essential, but this is often lost when chasing a story.

Respecting personal privacy is especially difficult when it comes to court reporting. Our judicial system is public and reporting on legal matters is important, but a journalist must be careful to not write something which unfairly tarnishes a person’s reputation or invades their privacy. Social media has exacerbated this issue, as people can be identified online and find their privacy and reputation breached, before the mainstream media can even report on it.

The task for journalists then, becomes to report as objectively as possible, without implying guilt in any way. It is easy for high profile cases to become “trial by social media”, such as with Adrian Bayley, who was persecuted online before his trial had finished. When the line between reportage and opinion becomes blurred, it has disastrous effects on a defendant’s right to a fair trial, such is the power of the media.

The same applies for political reporting, as many media organisations have been accused of ‘biases’ in the past, which is an attack on journalistic integrity. Every person holds their own political biases, but it is up to the journalist to not let this affect their reporting. All politicians should be scrutinised by journalists, as this is an integral part of journalism’s role as “The Fourth Estate”. But privacy should still be considered, even when reporting on high profile political figures.

Tony Abbott, in his resignation speech as Prime Minister, denounced a “febrile media culture [which] has developed that rewards treachery.” He believed it was unethical for journalists to publish leaks from unnamed sources within the government. But while the MEAA Code of Ethics warns journalists to be wary of anonymous sources, it is sometimes the only way to expose corruption and fulfil journalism’s role as the Fourth Estate.

Abbott also attacked media commentary, believing it to be mostly “sour, bitter, character assassination(s)”. Many politicians are regularly mocked and insulted on social media, but do journalists have a duty to preserve their good reputation? A free media is necessary for a functionary democracy and so journalists should be free to express their opinion in the media, as long as it is clearly distinguished as opinion and not news. But journalists should also make sure they adhere to the MEAA principles of fairness, accuracy and balance, even with commentary.

When politicians find themselves in legal strife, a journalist has to be wary of the ethical issues concerned with covering both politics and the courts. For example, one of our tutorial exercises this semester involved fictional Senator Havelock Vetinari arrested for drink driving in a government car. Such a story is highly newsworthy and the public has a right to know. But it is also disclosed that the Senator was visiting a brothel before the accident and has a sick wife. While mentioning the brothel would make for a massive story, I had to consider the privacy of his family, who would be adversely affected by the publication of such news. In the end, I did not mention the brothel, out of consideration for the privacy of him and his family, but I did report on his arrest in a government car, as this was in the public interest.

This fictional scenario highlights the difficult balance between a journalist’s Fourth Estate role and defending individual rights such as privacy. Sometimes journalists have to push the boundaries, in order to uncover information which the public has a right to know. This means the privacy of individuals can be compromised, and at times this is justified. Without a free media, those in power will not be held accountable to the public and so journalists should fight for their right to scrutinise these institutions. But at the same time, the media is also quite powerful and must regulate itself to ensure it is held accountable. There are many instances of the media acting unethically, where commercial interests are catered to, rather than the public interest. Social media is also creating issues for journalism, as it is now easier than ever for journalists to publish unethical and defamatory information to a global audience.

As journalists, we should strive to be fearless while remaining ethical. This means we should uphold our role as the Fourth Estate by constantly questioning authority and holding those in power accountable, while also respecting the privacy and reputation of others. To do so we must look to the MEAA Code of Ethics and our own conscience, to make judgements on what is fair and unfair to report on. It is this fine balancing act between society’s right to know and an individual’s right to privacy, which remains a source of conflict for all journalists


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