The debate surrounding journalistic ethics and how they relate to both privacy and honest integrity has rapidly changed in the past twenty years. With the advent of new media and the explosion of Internet access, the means by which a journalist gathers information or respects the bounds of an individual’s privacy have evolved with current technologies. The case of Arthur Ashe, the world renowned tennis player, AIDS activist, and anti-apartheid advocate, stands as an example of where an individuals privacy was surreptitiously violated by a USA Today reporter. The reporter not only released the story overseas before Ashe’s requested publication date, but the reporter also forced him to admit his medical condition publicly. The reporter’s actions were indeed contrary to the way journalists today should be conducting themselves, especially in regards to their ethical and moral duties as journalists. The primary ethical issue in this case is based on the reporter’s refusal to wait to publish Ashe’s medical conditions publicly because of “the public’s need to know.” In other words, the reporter’s insistence on publicizing the information didn’t consider whether or not the information was necessary for the public to know. Furthermore, the reporter’s actions and didn’t serve the aggregate good or any level of informative justice.
There are several immediate facts a journalist should consider when making an ethical decision regarding how to cover Ashe’s case. The first thing we must recognize in the Ashe case is that he put himself inside of the public arena what he chose to play professional tennis and become an outspoken opponent of Apartheid. Therefore, from a completely journalistic standpoint he could easily be defined as a social icon and celebrity. The second fact to consider is his possible connection to sponsors or some form of media. He could be contractually responsible to maintain a certain image. Both of these factors mean that he maintains some level of responsibility to his fans and sponsors in economic and social terms.
As a journalist, who you are responsible to is always subject to change. While journalists always maintain a responsibility to keep the public informed about important events, the degree of the responsibility largely depends on the relative importance of Ashe’s position in society. The claimants in this instance are restricted to his fans and sponsors. The public at large is not a claimant because Ashe holds no responsibility to the greater public like a politician might. For example, politicians who advocate for anti-gay legislation but secretly engage in homosexual activity should deserve little privacy because the very nature of their job is defined by the commitment to public service. Ashe’s position in society does not afford him the same level of responsibility as that of the politician. In fact he really only owes any responsibility to the individuals and companies that support him. In fact, as Thomas Bivins notes that when considering instances of individual privacy, the reporter should act in a way that is guided by social utility. He specifies that,” The moral agent must decide what information is essential or at least useful to the audience in understanding the message being communicated. This principle eliminates appeals to sensationalism, morbid curiosity, ridicule, and voyeurism as a justification for invasion of privacy” (Bivins 260). There is only one possible harm that can come from Ashe not disclosing his HIV status. This would probably manifest as contract violation with a sponsor, something which journalist have no ethical duty to report to the large public unless the magnitude of the responsibility is deemed to effect those outside the sponsor/athlete relationship.
The reporter in this instance acted unethically and beyond his/her responsibilities when they chose not to give Ashe the 36 hours delay in running the story he requested. There are several alternate ways that the reporter could have acted that would not have blatantly ignored his/her responsibilities as a journalist. First, the reporter could have asked to interview Ashe about a subject that was sensitive. If Ashe disagreed, the reporter could have asked to speak to him confidentially about the circumstances surrounding the contraction of the virus. Lastly, the reported could have asked Ashe if he would like to work with the reporter in developing a story to support HIV awareness.
Any of these alternatives would have both honored the ethical responsibilities of a journalist while simultaneously honoring the field of investigative journalism. Furthermore, by pursuing any of these alternatives the best case scenario involves both respecting the Ashe’s privacy, whereas the worst-case scenario is rejection from Ashe’s involvement in the piece. While the reporter does maintain a responsibility the institution for which he/she is reporting, their greater responsibility lies in upholding their dignity and honor as a journalist. Since the content of the story doesn’t concern the public at large the reporter’s actions were purely motivated by appealing to, “sensationalism, morbid curiosity, ridicule and voyeurism.” In other words, the actions of the journalist did more harm to Ashe and his family emotionally than they did well for society or possible sponsors. The aggregate good was not served whatsoever in this instance.
Based on this analysis the best course of action for the journalist would have been to ask Ashe if he would like to speak about the issue. If he refused the reporter should request Ashe to speak anonymously. The reported could easily spin the story as a human-interest story in which they could convince Ashe that his words would help educate the public at large about HIV and how it is spread. Again if Ashe refused, based on weighing the ethical requirements journalists are beholden to, the story should either be abandoned or approached another way.
Bivins, Thomas. Mixed Media: Moral Distinctions in Advertising, Public Relations, and Journalism. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.