Privacy in America: The frontier of duty and restraint

Journal of Mass Media Ethics 9 (4):213 – 234 (1994)
Topics at a Poynter Institute privacy conference in December 1992 ranged from the role and obligations of the journalist to the rights of victims. Journalists' responsibility to fulfill a dual role of truthtelling and minimizing harm to vulnerable people in society framed the discussion. The public' s curiosity and media obsessions with information about victims of sex crimes are the first topics to be explored. Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute sets the stage for the delicate balance. Helen Benedict, author of Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes, suggests some reforms regarding this area of news. Patricia Bowman, a victim's advocate, talks about her experience as the victim of the media and of a celebrated sex crime case. Elinor Brecher of the Miami Herald discusses a particularly vexing assignment she recently faced, and Tom French of the St. Petersburg Times expresses concern for the subjects of sensitive personal stories and recommends trying to inform them about the story and help them cope with the intrusion into their private life. In separate articles, J. T. Johnson of Sartor Associates in San Francisco and Nora Paul of the Poynter Institute offer insights into the paradox of individual privacy and public right/desire to know, particularly as the issues arise in today's information society. Finally, Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of Privacy Journal, outlines ways media can approach privacy issues and still feel they are on safe ground; he recommends self-restraint in place of government restrictions. The general theme of the Poynter Conference is restraint and concern for others' responsible usage of information that has the possibility to harm others.
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