Having spent much of my education focusing on politics, I am well acquainted with the ‘fourth estate’ role which the press plays in society. It is essential that a free and powerful press be present to hold power to account if we are to have a healthy democracy. This course has solidified this understanding, but has also reminded me that with this freedom comes great responsibility. While a journalist’s freedom to operate unimpeded must be respected by the power it intends to hold to account, the same journalist must also respect the institutions installed to protect individuals, companies and governments.
The most well-understood protections afforded to these three actors is that of privacy. The exercise involving Senator Vetinari was multi-faceted, but the glaring issue in this case was his right to privacy. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance encourages journalists to “inform citizens and animate democracy” but caution journalists against “the compulsion to intrude.” Mr Vetinari’s visit to the brothel was my knowledge only because I had intruded on his personal life; following him after he had finished work. Further, I chose not to report on his brothel visit because it is not in the public interest. Channel Seven’s team may have confused the ‘public interest’ with what the public is interested in, when they chose to report details of NSW MP David Campbell’s visit to a gay brothel.
At a more institutionalised level, Vetinari is protected by contempt of court laws. More a legal than ethical consideration for reporters, contempt has serious consequences, including gaol time. As Vetinari was charged with drink driving, his case is now sub judice. As such, his name cannot be published until he has appeared in court. I also chose to omit the offender’s occupation from the report as he could be identifiable which can be considered defamatory if he is not convicted.
Of course, while these ethical and legal protections afforded to individuals in our community are mostly respected by journalists, they are becomingly increasingly difficult to protect after the advent of social media. As knowledge is no longer centralised and controlled by a small number of semi-regulated media outlets and every person with a smartphone and Twitter account is effectively a publisher, what’s considered public knowledge has evolved.
Many media organisations will now deem images and content posted on Facebook and Twitter ‘public knowledge’ and report on them, effectively circumventing the law. This does not make the practice any more ethical, however, as the source of such content cannot easily be verified and their methods of obtaining it are not easily scrutinised.
On a more personal level, social media has enabled journalists to gain an insight into the lives of many people who would assume some level of privacy. This became apparent when watching ABCs Q&A program each week. I found myself exploring the social media histories of various Twitter-contributors as their tweets were published on-screen. This was further highlighted when News Corp’s The Australian published offensive posts from last week’s Q&A audience member Khaled Elomar’s Facebook in a bid to criticise the way the show vets it’s audience members.
As a result, I have spent several hours reviewing my online history. My blog, and in particular my Twitter feed, while maintaining their constant political/world news commentary, now does not portray any particular bias, let alone offensive posts. I believe this will hold me in good stead moving into an era where privacy is not easily protected and the ‘right to be forgotten’ is a right which is unenforceable.