When I teach ethics, which I will do again this spring, I hammer home to students the distinction between three levels of information: right to know, need to know and want to know. A right to know is legally mandated by statute. Public records are right to know information. The need to know covers information that is necessary to inform citizen readers of things important to society, business and government. A lot of folks think need to know information only involves government, but that’s not true. Many important social issues have evolved over the years because someone decided there was a need for readers to better understand those issues.
Then there is the want to know. People want to know some really kinky stuff so reputable news organizations have traditionally developed some standards that say ” hey that stuff is none of our business. it is prurient. There is no need for us to know that stuff.” That quaint concept may have died this week because of an unrestrained media’s desire to cover Tiger Woods, his car accident and perhaps every single sexual misadventure in his life.
To say the Woods coverage is unseemly is a painful statement of the obvious. But it’s the motives for that coverage that should cause everyone who believes in media standards to cower.
Bryan Burwell on stltoday.com nailed it when he wrote “The trouble is, too many of us are confusing our desire to know with our need to know.”
Brett Haber in his From the Press column in USA Today grasps the essence of the problem too. “People want answers from Tiger, but not because they need them or have a right to them, rather because they’re curious. I don’t believe any federal judge has ever issued a subpoena on the grounds of curiosity.” Great line, but apparently stunning to many in the media.
Some media apologists rush for the public figure crutch to justify this curiosity. A special column on seattlepi.com by Jim Moore contends, “Tiger has asked for privacy in dealing with his family matter, yet he’s a public figure who has put himself out there with this one.”
Am I supposed to believe running into a tree made Wood’s entire private life fair game? While that’s a fascinating proposition, Patrick Dobel, the faculty athletic representative for the University of Washington, writes in his thoughtful blog that “Tiger never sold or led with his private life. He always led with his professional athletic excellence. The media narratives were fascinated by his life and celebrated it, but he sought to shield his life as much as he could.”
If Tiger is any sort of paragon, the press created that image, and it is disingenuous to then use that as an excuse to ferret out every detail of his life.
There are two profoundly disturbing ethical elements of the Woods case. One is this “want to know” problem. Just because the press or the public is curious privacy should not be discarded as a respectable concept. Secondly, the idea that information needs to be responsibly sourced is not dead, no matter what you read about this case.
Just for fun, let’s look at a paragraph written by Jemele Hill in an ESPN.com column: “Woods’ request for privacy became irrelevant the moment the conjecture began that there might have been a conflict between Woods and his wife on Thanksgiving over last week’s National Enquirer story about an affair. Nothing has been verified, though TMZ.com reported Monday that the Florida Highway Patrol is seeking a search warrant for hospital records to investigate the probable cause of Woods’ injuries — a report the FHP doesn’t confirm. But at this point, confirmation doesn’t matter. What matters is the speculation that the rumored conflict was the reason not only for Woods’ hasty late-night departure, but also for his refusal so far to be interviewed by the Highway Patrol.”
Am I in a circus funhouse or did I just read that Woods” request for privacy became irrelevant because of conjecture in the bleeping National Enquirer that has not been verified? And, did I really read that without independent verification ESPN.com is reporting something from TMZ.com even though the Florida Highway Patrol specifically denied the contention? This hall of mirrors gets even more delightful when Hill writes that “what matters is the speculation that the rumored conflict…” In the name of all that is holy and ethical can anyone tell me why a respected journalist’s keyboard didn’t freeze up when she wrote that sentence? And did a cadre of editors actually approve that copy without a roomful of belly laughs?
I know I am accused of being a journalistic dreamer, but I pray I did not miss the memo that said speculation about rumors is what really matters. I am so old I remember the day the National Enquirer was considered a joke in newsrooms. Things don’t become news just because some irresponsible fool asserts something. In journalism we verify facts in an attempt to show they are true!
Haber in his USA Today column expresses this descent into the gossip monger’s world well when he writes: “Ever since the TMZ’s of the world succeeded in mainstreaming themselves onto the landscape of acceptable media, we the public have slid down their slippery slope to a place where it’s OK to probe with impunity the private lives of public figures. And if those figures don’t give us what we want when we ambush them with a camera outside the restaurant where they’re eating, then we’ll climb up a tree outside their homes with telephoto lenses or chase their cars on motorcycles until we’ve succeeded in trampling on what little privacy they maintain.”
Haber then adds a powerfully true sentence that should cause journalists and the public to pause for reflection and penance, “That’s not journalism; that’s stalking.”
Adam Ostrow in a column on Mashable.com presented Tiger”s December 2 statement from his web site. “Although I am a well-known person and have made my career as a professional athlete, I have been dismayed to realize the full extent of what tabloid scrutiny really means.” Continuing, Tiger writes: “But no matter how intense curiosity about public figures can be, there is an important and deep principle at stake which is the right to some simple, human measure of privacy. I realize there are some who don’t share my view on that. But for me, the virtue of privacy is one that must be protected in matters that are intimate and within one’s own family. Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn’t have to mean public confessions.”
It is more than a bit sad when we have to look to the world’s greatest golfer for eloquence on media ethics but I agree with Ostrow when he accurately pronounces Tiger correct. “Tiger’s right. While we’ve come to expect a certain level of transparency from companies, brands and even public figures thanks to social media, it’s not our God-given right to know what Tiger does in his personal life, as many seemed to think it was in the days following his accident.”
Let’s not pretend the Woods case is the first time we have deliberated about this discussion on celebrity athletes and privacy. In 2002 Bob Ley did a major Outside the Lines report on athletes and privacy. It makes for interesting reading in that 7 years ago we were fretting about the same issues. Yet celebrity athlete coverage seems to flourish even though the public allegedly tells us they don’t want to see it.
In 2007 Pew research found “An overwhelming majority of the public (87%) says celebrity scandals receive too much news coverage.” This criticism generally holds across most major demographic and political groups.
And yet, many folks tell us that this coverage continues because the public demands it. They point to the huge hits these stories get and argue they are the most e-mailed and the most popular. It is time we did some soul searching and some solid research to figure out if the public demands it or if journalists’ own primal curiosity is driving this circus wagon.
There is a lot of hand-wringing these days about the downfall of mainstream media. I am among the wishful thinkers who believe that this total absence of standards will destroy the media purveyors who don’t set limits. I understand that many professionals argue that unless we play the TMZ game we’re doomed. I contend that if we do play that game we’re doomed.
Responsible journalists should scour the ethical textbooks and come up with some standards for publishing private information that meets the goals posed by questions like these when we consider what to publish and what not to publish. How about a list of questions like this?
· Let’s analyze the common good. Is it served by knowing this?
· Is there a journalistic purpose?
· What about a Golden Rule metric?
· Is there a need to know or a want to know?
I argue knowing about Tiger Woods’ sex life is not bettering the common good. There is no legitimate journalistic purpose to publishing unsubstantiated rumors. I am not out on a limb when I contend that few journalists I know could stand this sort of scrutiny themselves. And finally, it is as clear to me as it is Burwell and Haber that this story is about a “want to know,” and not a “need to know.”
My apologies to friends and followers for my absence from this blog. I am well. Grading overwhelmed me again this semester. I will endeavor to write more regularly.