Ethical questions around how journalists should use images to illustrate a story have become ever more complex in recent decades. Digital cameras have become ubiquitous, and social media has blurred the lines between public and private. Even if a photo is in the public domain, where do journalists’ ethical responsibilities lie?
James Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University, says that there are many important questions around privacy in the social media age.
How we can protect the “safe spaces” we need as individuals to develop our ideas, he asks, where we aren’t performing publicly or engaged in public discourse?
“What happens when those kinds of spaces disappear because of how common and ubiquitous recording devices are?” Turk asks. “It’s a far bigger question than just these kids. All of us can appear on social media, be outed in a variety of ways, sometimes quite illegitimately and people’s reputations can be damaged almost irrevocably… How do we undo that damage?
David Crerar, another lawyer whose work focuses on media and defamation, says that media organizations have grown far more aware of their cyber impact than they were a decade ago.
They are more likely now to “recognize the harm that online publication can do to a person for a split second of idiocy,” he says. “You could basically literally ruin a person’s life by running a photograph of them” in certain contexts.
He adds that media organizations increasingly have little to no say over the life of a story once it enters cyberspace. A story can be copied and propagated forever, he says, far beyond the control of any given outlet.
“Traditional media is all too aware that they are not necessarily the main decision-maker or propagator of news these days,” Crerar says.
Over at the BuzzFeed newsroom, Daro had similar concerns about his outlet’s reach. He argued that blurring the photos, despite their prominence on social media, made sense. “Twitter and social media platforms aren’t quite as much of a permanent catalogue as an article that is published on a website that’s maintained,” he says.
But Strapagiel argued that an expectation of privacy didn’t hold in this case. “I think my reasons then were, ‘Why should we [blur]?’ This is public. They made a choice. They put it online. They clearly had no qualms about it then. Why should we have qualms about it for them now?” she says.
Rogers also points out that the photos were of costumes that were likely already public.
“The costumes, they were presumably wearing in the street before they got to the party. That’s not to me highly indicative of a private activity,” Rogers says. “On the other hand, if there were a couple in the corner kissing, that could be at the other end of the line.”