When I took Journalism 101 in college, we discussed privacy at length. As budding reporters, we learned the difference between public figures (e.g. politicians) and private citizens. We learned that the press was almost always protected against writing something about public figures in the paper (even if it turned out to be false), but we had to follow more stringent guidelines when writing about private citizens. Writing a damaging story about a private person for no apparent reason, no matter how factually accurate it might be, was cause for a lawsuit. The underlying reason for all that was privacy, and the unspoken need to protect the reputation of the average person. If Mr. Senator is cheating on his wife, it is fair game to report it. But you’d better not write about Mr. Nobody’s affair, unless he does something newsworthy and the affair is applicable to the story.
I attended college when the Internet was in its infancy. At that time, someone could choose to remain a private person. The reason why politicians weren’t protected as well against libel and slander is because they chose to put themselves into the limelight, where privacy didn’t exist. Now, thanks to the Internet, it appears that privacy doesn’t exist for the average Joe, either.
The Internet has essentially given everyone the same tools that were once the sole purview of journalists, namely a publishing platform. Now, anyone can write something about any other person online. But unlike journalists, those Web publishers don’t have to be as careful about what they say. There are too many writers and not enough editors looking over their shoulders. With nobody protecting the privacy of those being written about, it can affect reputations.
As far as reputation goes, we can’t control what others say about us online, just like we can’t control what people say about us offline. Unfortunately, online commentary, whether accurate or not, stays there forever. And where Mr. Nobody’s affair once was not particularly newsworthy, now it is if the writer happens to be his wife.
That takes me back to college. With college students today caring less about the information they put online than previous generations, I wonder what professors in Journalism 101, or Media Ethics are teaching today, and whether it is falling on deaf ears.