This is a question that journalists confront on a daily basis with potentially profound consequences. It is a balancing act that involves weighing the public’s right to know with an individual’s right to privacy. Reporters begin by asking two questions: Is the information newsworthy and does the public have a legitimate need to know? Generally, when the story involves public officials, public figures or celebrities, the answer is yes. As The Elements of Journalism states, journalists have a duty to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing, and the courts have taken an expansive view when it comes to that information and the need to know.
A less straightforward scenario involves people who do not choose public notoriety but find themselves in the news because of circumstances beyond their control. Take, for example, a major car accident along a highway. The victims are not involved in a news story by choice, but the courts consider accidents, fires, crimes and any police activity newsworthy, so a news outlet could broadcast video of a victim at an accident scene or name victims of crime without their permission.
But most news outlets do consider a victim’s right to privacy and wrestle with the decision whether to name victims or private citizens in their stories. It’s a decision that carries an even greater responsibility in this digital age because news stories now follow someone online forever, thanks to search engines and the lack of “right to be forgotten” laws that the European Union has adopted.
That said, there are guidelines to help journalists cover stories fully but sensitively. When it comes to victims of sexual assault, sexual abuse, and domestic violence, the news media almost always conceals their identities unless the victims agree to speak publicly as in the case of the women who accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault. Children are almost never named because they cannot give informed consent, and news outlets don’t want to revictimize them.
For other stories that involve tragedy and grief, it’s often hard to know exactly where that right to privacy begins and ends because there is no clear standard. In those cases, it’s up to reporters to consider a person’s vulnerability and then tell the public what they know while minimizing the privacy invasion. One of the core tenets of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is minimize harm, which means showing compassion for victims, being sensitive when using photos or quotes, and recognizing that private citizens do have a greater right to privacy than public officials.