Nov 192009
 November 19, 2009  Posted by  Misc, Online

A commentary on media invading privacy.

Steve Bornfeld has a commentary in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “Channel 8 crosses privacy line with Fredericks story” that deals with media crossing lines and invading individuals’ privacy. He writes, in part:

Privacy lost to prurience.

That was the result when Channel 8 last week reported the humiliating exploits of ex-Channel 3 weather prognosticator John Fredericks, who obsessively harassed a woman he met online, via a voice-mail barrage.

(We regret re-invading his privacy, but Channel 8 made it public, therefore necessary for a media column to address.)

Over two nights, George Knapp played a series of unsettling messages left by Fredericks to a woman who contacted media outlets seeking coverage (including the R-J, which passed). After a police report was filed, he was twice warned by cops to desist and eventually did, without arrest.

“The story could have importance if it is put into some context,” says Al Tompkins, who teaches broadcast journalism ethics at the respected Poynter Institute. “Does it illustrate a larger problem? Without context, it is more like a celebrity scandal than real news.”


Did the so-called “celebrity” of Fredericks — a minor public personality who never affected public welfare, faded from public view nearly a year ago and hasn’t been charged with a crime — justify exposing a private matter for some cautionary tale about an issue that wasn’t even explored?

Read more in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

What really struck me in Bornfeld’s commentary was his statement later in the piece, “Still, reporters aren’t cops, and not every incident rising to the level of police involvement rises to the level of news coverage.”

His “reporters aren’t cops” seems especially timely in light of the piece I posted yesterday about how a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor went beyond just moderating forum comments to reaching out to report a comment that at its very worst, was simply vulgar or inappropriate. The editor attempted to defend his actions by saying that when he looked up the IP associated with the comment, he saw it was a school, and thinking that the comment may have been made by a student, thought the school would want to know about it. That may have been his motivation, but even if it was a student, should a newspaper act like an extension of the school and report student misbehavior? Even assuming that a student or employee was misusing a school district’s computers, should editors become cops or snitches to report the misuse? The social media editor, Kurt Greenbaum, claimed that he did not know what the school could do with just an IP (and a time-stamped email). Given the widespread news coverage about how anonymous online posters have been tracked down, it is hard to give credence to a claim by someone who is experienced in online posting that he did not know that the poster’s identity could be determined. But even if that were true, there is still the issue of whether the editor went too far by notifying the school about the comment.

As Jacqui Cheng of Ars Technica noted, we are seeing more and more online sites put under pressure or sued to reveal the identity of online commenters. For those of us who are attempting to fight back against the erosion of online privacy and free speech, the editor’s actions are over the top and cross a line that should not have been crossed.

That Mr. Greenbaum does not, even on reflection, see the problem with his behavior when he is an editor is troubling. That a mainstream newspaper like the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has not acknowledged that what the editor did appears to violate its own policies or journalistic ethics [corrected below] is equally troubling. The paper has not issued any statement or editorial about the incident and has as yet to respond to two requests for a statement about the matter.

Correction: I may have been wrong in saying it’s a matter of “journalistic ethics,” even though a number of self-described reporters who have commented on the case on other web sites have expressed their dismay or disgust with Greenbaum’s actions. Andy Schotz, Chair of the Ethics Committee for the Society of Professional Journalists, correctly pointed out to me in an e-mail exchange that there are parts of a news organization that have nothing to do with journalism and that are business decisions. Even though an editor was involved, he did not see this matter as one involving journalism as much as business decisions that news organizations may make in terms of their privacy policies, terms of service, and decisions about whether to permit online anonymous comments.

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