Know Your Rights: Privacy

January 9, 2018 11:00

During Free Speech Week 2017, RTDNA co-hosted a Know Your Reporting Rights discussion addressing how the First Amendment applies to journalists. Here is part two of a new series expanding on the topics and tips in that discussion. In case you missed it, here's part 1 on FOIA. This week: privacy.

As a journalist, you have a right to report truthful information, except where private.

That’s where things get tricky.

It sounds simple, but it isn’t always easy to discern what’s considered public and what is private.
What’s Public?
Let’s start with the seemingly obvious: It’s ok to film a government – and thus public – building like a courthouse, right?

Generally, yes, but there’s almost always a “but” – exceptions related to privacy. For example, if a court official asks you to not film the building today, ask why. Perhaps, unrelated to your story, domestic abuse survivors are coming and going for court proceedings. Those individuals may even come to harm if they show up on TV, so it’s reasonable to reframe your shot.

What if the individuals in question are part of your story? Here’s where it’s important to weigh the public’s need to know with respect for personal privacy, especially that of victims of crime, children or vulnerable populations. See our coverage guidelines for questions to consider.

Many of us have experienced, however, obstruction even when the public’s right to know clearly outweighs any expectation of privacy. In July 2017, the U.S. Senate Sergeant-at-Arms and U.S. Capitol Police ordered journalists to delete photos and videos taken of arrests made during a protest outside the Senate chamber. RTDNA’s Voice of the First Amendment Task Force expressed concern at the time. “Every American, journalist or not, has a Constitutional right to photograph or record law enforcement officers performing their duties in public,” said Dan Shelley, who heads the task force and is now RTDNA Executive Director.

In such situations, there may be little you can do in the short term aside from calmly and clearly reminding officials present of your rights, and contacting your lawyer, but know that you have RTDNA, and the First Amendment, on your side.

What’s Private?
Sometimes the best place to get your story is on private property: an event at a hotel, for example. Are you out of luck? Not necessarily!  Consider how any other member of the public would gain access. Could you become a paying member or guest? For an event, is there a registration process? Be cautious, though. Read the rules and guidelines of the event, and do not misrepresent yourself.

A good rule is, whenever possible, ask for permission. Explain your story, why you believe it is important, and your goals.

It’s also a good idea, if you’re covering a story where privacy may be an issue, to work with your News Director and your legal team to plan ahead as much as possible. Walk through the challenges and objections you may face, and be sure your decisions and explanations are legal and, importantly, ethical.

More Grey Areas
Sometimes sources ask for privacy, worrying they may face repercussions if publically named in a story. Ethical use of anonymous sources requires strong standards, with multiple people in the newsroom knowing the source’s identify and additional sources corroborating the story.

Our guidance is outlined in RTDNA’s coverage guidelines on sourcing. This generally comes up more for large, national stories, but can play out in local news too. Here’s a recent example, accompanied by the, perhaps changing, thought process behind the story.

There are many more grey areas surrounding privacy and reporting. We’ll be addressing a few, including social media, recording phone calls, and hidden cameras in upcoming issues.
Stay tuned next week for part 3: your rights and your safety. For more on privacy, FOIA and what your newsroom needs to know before heading into any potentially confrontational story, download our Know Your Reporting Rights guide