An expectation of privacy

When embracing a new technology reporters have a responsibility not to do so in a way that would infringe on the privacy of the public at large. Each new tool presents opportunities to expand coverage, but it also creates a situation where the public can unknowingly be on the front page of the newspaper and immortalized online without their knowledge and consent and as such user submitted images must be avoided. Press using a new technology to invade individual’s privacy is not a concept new to social media, Justice Louis D. Brandeis (before he was a Supreme Court justice) wrote of the evils of instant photography, the high technology of 1890:

Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that “what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.”

Not only is photography instant in 2011, but publication can be instant too with publishing to Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and other networks possible directly from smartphones with cameras. When a reporter takes a picture with a camera large or small, he or she asks permission of the subject (when possible), then writes down the names to include in a caption (if possible) and then include all that information in a report; individual members of the public follow no such guidelines.

Members of the public take pictures everywhere on camera phones, an infographic published on Mashable in February, 2011 estimates that six billion pictures are upload every month, or nearly 200 thousand pictures everyday to a single site. Reporters tapped into this wealth of pictures using images in their reporting with call outs to users, and while these pictures are a valuable tool caution must be exercised.

The internet created a decreased expectation of privacy since anyone can take pictures and upload them, however there is a difference between a photo uploaded to a user’s Facebook or Flickr stream and one which the user then submits to a newspaper for wider publication.

In an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal L. Gordon Crovitz wrote that “The modern expectation of privacy is not that people will always want to remain anonymous. Instead, they expect to have a choice about how they both control and share information about themselves.” Photos from a public event, taken by another private individual acting in a private capacity have no business appearing alongside reporting if there are identifiable third parties. Using such images goes beyond what many reasonable people expect will be shared with the news consuming public.

Readers know that content produced by a news organization adhered to some ethics, but there is no such guarantee with content produced by private individuals and provided to the news outlet. The National Press Photographers Association’s Code of Ethics has sixteen points including:

  • Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see.
  • While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.

Editors have no way of confirming that any ethical standards were upheld when using pictures taken by the general public, and by extension have no way of confirming that people in the pictures were treated with “respect and dignity” and that the photographer chronicled events without altering them.

Despite the allure offered by asking users to participate and provide their photos, editors must be wary of doing so. One way of protecting the public is to only use tools in common usage, do not get too far ahead of the public since attendees at events need to be aware of how they might be recorded by their fellow members of the public, editors must also know that just because you can use a technology does not mean you should use it.

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