Journalism as the “Fourth Estate” has a role in the regulation of society. It scrutinises and criticises the practices of the other estates; the legislative and executive powers, and the legal system. It does this to inform the wider society of the practices within these systems. Journalism’s second major role is to protect freedom on the public sphere, dating back to Enlightenment theories which proposed all opinions, including wrong opinions, deserved to be heard. While carrying out our jobs, journalists come into conflict with an individual’s right to privacy, presumption of innocence and their right to a good reputation, just to name a few. So how do we maintain this while being fair, accurate and balanced?
Privacy is an issue heavily spoken about recently, given Australia’s mandatory data retention scheme that just came into effect. While a journalist’s individual privacy is not considered, Section 7b.4 of the Privacy Act 1988 states that journalism is exempt from the privacy act. This only holds true given the “exemption promotes the public interest in freedom of expression and the free flow of information critical to the maintenance of a democratic society”. So as long as my prying is in the interest of the public, it’s acceptable?
When doing political reporting, we were required to search private details of our local council members. Details including addresses, any associations they had with groups, whether they owned a business, whether they were forbidden from owning a business and any other personal information. A highly invasive search, it felt uncomfortable and almost illegal to be doing such a thing, regardless of their position.
In the Australian Privacy Law and Practice (ALRC Report 108) it states “in the new Information Age, high-powered computers and other sophisticated electronic devices are no longer the preserve of specialist technicians employed by governments and major corporations, but a basic tool utilised by virtually all Australians in almost all aspects of their lives”. So what makes me different to any other person diligently searching everything they can find about a political figure, with so much access on the internet nowadays?
It’s not a relaxing hobby that I do on the weekend, it’s purposeful work that’s of public benefit. Benefit and interest are two separate concepts, however. While the public might find it interesting that their local council member lives in a three storey mansion in another suburb, it is of public benefit to find out this information as it may impact on the member’s ability to exercise their work in an area which they themselves do not live in.
In the hard new story about Senator Vetenari, a journalist followed the MP to a brothel. Though Vetenari’s position as an MP warrants scrutiny and an invasion of privacy because of the nature of his public role, it did not warrant being followed in a car. I chose not to name him as the ways by which the information was gathered were unethical, and it would not be right to identify him as he had yet to go to court. it would also be defamatory to presume guilt before he had been trialled in a court of law. I thought it was of public benefit to know that a tax payer funded car was being used by a drink driving member of Parliament than details about his sexual activity.
Editor of The Monthly Nick Feik said in a lecture with RMIT students in September that defamation is “something that could shut The Monthly’s doors in a couple months”. He said it is “harsh” to “damage someone’s reputation unnecessarily” and his team is “rigorous” and takes defamation “very seriously”. An individual has the right to a good reputation, and ruining it for no societal benefit is highly unethical and possibly criminal. It takes careful consideration to ensure you are being fair, accurate, balanced and transparent while maintaing this individual’s reputation. A municipality deserves the right to know if there is a criminal with a history of family violence and substance abuse in their area as seen in my court reporting, but it’s highly defamatory to name him and write what was said by him in court when he has not taken a plea. It’s easy to step outside of court and tweet about the case, but often tweeting is done with little thought and consideration of journalism’s key ethical issues. Anyone can tweet but not anyone can be a journalist. If there’s one thing that social media has taught us in recent years is that journalists often forget their role when tweeting, such as the case of Geoff Winestock and Scott McIntyre’s Anzac Day tweets.
It’s a constant tug-of-war between society and the individual; society is protected with freedom of the media while the individual suffers, and protecting an individual comes at a cost to society. It’s my job as a journalist to decide this cost, and more importantly, the benefit. The benefit should outweigh all costs, and with more practice it will become a reflex that requires little thought. For now, being self reflective and self regulating will ensure I am behaving as a journalist; maintaing freedom of the press while considering an individual’s rights. In doing so, journalism refuses the regulation by the three other estates, and can continue to serve society.