Privacy and Newsworthiness

New norms of privacy are being developed in our intensely digital society. As people place more of themselves online they open themselves up to ever-greater intrusion from cyber pathways. The current young generation has been accused of narcissism for their desire to document their whole lives on Facebook and Snapchat, but the desire still remains to conceal themselves as well as protect themselves from prying eyes. Attempts to reconcile the increased vulnerability have been highlighted in litigation (the Supreme Court ruled that smartphones are different in kind from items like wallets because of the personal information they contain), by doxxing and other phenomena of mob justice online, by the backlash against NSA spying, and by the increasingly personal approach of the news media.

Recently, a court sided with former wrestler and entertainer Hulk Hogan against Gawker media, a purveyor of serious news and commentary, but also of tabloid-style scandalousness and rumor, because it released a sex tape it had obtained of Hulk Hogan and a friend’s wife. In a deposition a senior editor for Gawker facetiously said that any sex video of a person over the age of 4 was appropriately newsworthy to be published for mass consumption.

The Intercept is an often thought-provoking and bias-challenging read. Glenn Greenwald built his media establishment out of his access to the Snowden leaks and that trove has proved to be an extraordinary resource for him and his company. But the inception has, at times, cast its shadow over the day-to-day operations of the newspaper. Not everything secret or classified is newsworthy. The government conceals itself out of an institutional inertia that seeks to keep everything under its control. That over-classification harms not just the transparency of the government, but the ability to understand what is newsworthy.

The struggle for the newsmedia is two-fold. One, it is difficult to distinguish between what is secret and what is newsworthy. With the increased vulnerability of secrets deposited online and their ability to be rapidly disseminated comes difficult decisions about the information that is actually useful to the public. Two, there is no absolute line demarcating the difference between a person’s private life, especially if they are a public figure, and their public life. If every date and sextape a celebrity makes is also a continuance of their business life as reality stars then it is hard to tell what is sacred.

What all of this amounts to is a breakdown of privacy norms that have been in place for at least hundreds of years. When everyone lived in small groups, villages, or communities, there was a very reduced sense of privacy. A problem or personal issue of any member of the tribe or group was dragged into the light and the community dealt with problems and issues as a whole. But now that tribe or community has expanded to everyone with an internet connection, and people are not used to those stresses and pressures. Strengthening privacy laws is an uphill battle. It seems instead that people should grow more tolerant, and that society should shift their thinking to both expect less privacy and to be more accepting of others’ flaws and secrets.

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