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Public’s Need to Know Often Clashes With Right to Privacy



Editor’s Notebook , Thomas York

It was a difficult decision, and one that had to be made on deadline.

The photograph that the staff photographer had put before me, still damp from processing, was disturbing.

Two paramedics crouched around a young swimmer who had drowned during a routine practice after mysteriously hitting his head. Several teammates, still clad in trunks, stood close by transfixed, and in shock.

We debated, myself and two other editors, along with the photographer, whether or not to publish the picture in the suburban daily newspaper where I worked in the early 1980s.

We agreed, after no small amount of debate, that it served us no purpose to run the photograph and expose the family to even more grief.

The debate over the photograph came to mind in the days after Seung-Hui Cho went on his rampage at Virginia Tech.

As we now know, Cho took the time to express mail from the campus post office a rambling rant about why he was doing what he was doing in the school’s dorms and classrooms.

He sent his video, and still photographs to Web-based news purveyor MSNBC, which, under great criticism, chose to publish the material on its Web site, as well as share it with a television news division and other outlets.

Critics argued publicizing the images would now encourage every other deviant with a gun or rifle to carry out similar acts, and obtain his own 15 minutes of infamy in the media.

Well, yeah … the copycats do come out occasionally, but is that an argument to shut off the media?

The crux of the issue here is the public’s right to know , really, your right to know, a principal that’s really important at a time when that right is under attack from all quarters (especially among federal, state and local bureaucrats).

When news gathering organizations hold back news, they set precedents, and when precedents are set, it’s hard to go back. We should never allow censorship, in any way, shape or form.


Official Status

News gathering is difficult enough as it is, which requires collecting a myriad of facts and figures on the fly (history in a hurry, is how one of my professors of long ago had described the import of journalism), and making dozens of decisions about the import of the information so gathered.

On behalf of society, our role as journalists is to ask who, what, when, where and why , the five “Ws” that should be included in every piece of journalism served up to readers, viewers and listeners.

Journalists have been asking “Why?” ever since Charles Whitman climbed the 27-story office tower at the University of Texas in 1966 and started shooting with shotgun and rifle. Before he was taken down by authorities, he had shot 50 passers-by without rhyme, or reason.

We know as little now as we did 40 years ago, and there have been a number of mass murderers in those four decades, and I hesitate to say it, but undoubtedly there will be a few more before this horrid phenomenon runs its course.

However, to shut off the flow of information, voluntarily or involuntarily, about these events isn’t the right decision to make.

Sometimes the news (and reporting the news) creates discomfort and ill ease, but we, as citizens of the Republic, have to take the bad news with the good.

Moreover, most journalists learn to be circumspect when the subject matter calls for special handling, such as the shootings at Virginia Tech.


Sensitivity

The Cho shootings certainly demand large helpings of sensitivity. The grieving families of those 32 students and adults are suffering enough.

But there are larger issues involved, including the role of the university as well as society, in what happened.

Thus, we must inquire, we must delve, and probe, and ask why.

The truth is we’re all vulnerable to crazy people with a gun. But the more we learn, the better off we are, and the better we can protect ourselves.

When I recall the debate over publishing that photograph of the young high school swimmer who had lost his life close to three decades ago, I know we did the right thing.

It was a personal tragedy that need not be made public.

But what happened in Blacksburg, Va., was a very public event, which has led to a debate in which we all must be involved.

It’s a perfect example of where the public’s need to know clashes with the individual’s right to privacy.


Thomas York is editor of the San Diego Business Journal.

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