Home > journalism industry > Ethical Dilemma: Following Our Own Terms of Service

Ethical Dilemma: Following Our Own Terms of Service

A screenshot from the online discussion board at tampabay.com about the Norm Roche story.

Earlier this month, the St. Pete Times had a really interesting article about a Pinellas County commissioner, Norm Roche, who was posting snarky comments on the newspaper’s website. The comments frequently included racial connotations and other points of view that reflected poorly on such a high-ranking official.

In the Nov. 17 article that broke the news that Norm Roche was using the alias “Reality” to post on the St. Pete Times website, journalist David DeCamp wrote:

Times reporter noticed similarities between Roche’s public statements and those made by Reality.

This is the kind of observation skills that make journalists good at their jobs. It’s also all too easy to figure out the online personas of well-known public figures most of the time. But as some of the commentors on the original article and some follow-up articles, “outing” Norm Roche may have broken the Times’ own privacy policy. The privacy policy reads:

Use of Information by TampaBay.com. When we collect personal information about users, that information could be shared with advertisers, but only in the aggregate. We will never provide personal information on an individual basis to any third party.

This opens up a couple of important questions for journalists (especially journalists who are involved in their news organization’s online policy-making).

  1. Do the readers of the St. Pete Times qualify as third parties?
  2. Does the news value of exposing a public figure making irresponsible comments in a public forum take precedence over following your own privacy policy?
  3. If a journalist identifies a citizen on the forums through similarity of language, does that bypass the privacy policy, since it was not done through the identifying information collected through the use of a commenting account (such as name, email, IP address, etc.)?

I think these questions – and others also connected to the incident – are ones that should be discussed at the Times. And since journalists and editors there thought that their decision on the matter warranted a flurry of articles, I think it would also behoove them to publish an article or editor’s note about how they felt this journalism was done in conjunction with the privacy policy. I haven’t seen any explanation from them as of yet, but I think it would be interesting to know what discussions were had behind the scenes.

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