What sorts of legal and ethical issues ought to be considered when discussing someone's character in public? My focus has been on when it is appropriate to comment on another individual's personality. My most recent posts concerned portions of ethical codes relevant to that problem as developed by the American Psychological Association (here and here) and the American Psychiatric Association (here and here).

This week, I want to consider an additional set of ethical principles from the Society of Professional Journalists as it applies to discussing public figures in the media. The Professional Journalists' code begins commendably with the idea that when journalists write for their readers they perform a valuable public service.

"Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues."

The Society's code contains the following passage as well, embedded in its section instructing its members to "Minimize Harm." It encourages its members to:

"- Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
- Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone's privacy.
- Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity."

The above passage introduces some ethical issues that are unique relative to the comparable ethical codes of psychiatrists or psychologists. Specifically, the professional journalist group points out that, when discussing someone's personality, journalists ought to take into account how much the individual is in (or desires to be in) the public eye. The journalists' Code describes an implicit continuum between private people, on the one hand, and a group of people who "seek power, influence, or attention" such as public officials, on the other.

Another issue raised by the Code is that journalists should avoid "unwarranted invasions of privacy and pandering to lurid curiosity."  This may be hard to judge but it surely is a good idea.

If we regard the ethics codes of the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association as a public conversation on how (and whether) to comment on the psychological qualities of public figures, then the professional journalists code brings some new elements into that conversation.

As the journalists see it, different levels of sensitivity are warranted depending upon whether a potential commentary concerns people who are private citizens and wish to remain so, or is about people who "seek power, influence, or attention." When considering how much to say and how far to go in saying it, the journalists' code indicates, It is worth considering the choices people have made in positioning themselves along this continuum of privacy-versus-visibility-seeking.

The continuum raises some interesting complications to contend with, such as what a journalist (or psychologist) is to do if a person who has led a largely private life is alleged to have committed a crime. Such complications aside, however, it seems fair to take such concerns into account and to try to respect someone's privacy in many or most cases.

In the case of all individuals, the code discourages invasions of privacy and pandering to lurid curiosity.

The code reminds us that the purpose of journalism, and any commentary associated with it, is public enlightment through truth-seeking and fairness.

In a subsequent post, I will examine the issues raised collectively by these three codes of ethics.


The ethics code of the Society of Professional Journalists is available online here: http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp

Copyright © 2010 by John D. Mayer

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