Privacy: What We Do and Say

So often, marketplace behavior dictates the privacy afforded individuals.   We often see the erosion of privacy guarantees, which prompts the public to demand a reversal.  Aside from its direct impact, a change in policy favoring privacy sends an important message.  It says that protecting someone’s privacy in a particular circumstance serves individuals and society.

Today, CBS Atlanta just apologized for a story that exposed a woman’s deeply personal moments.  Yesterday, it aired a story about a local man charged with murdering another man in Connecticut.  Connecticut authorities arrested the man on Monday for the shooting and killing of a Yale University doctor.  CBS reporters then went to the man’s home to learn more about the events leading up to the story.  As the Director of CBS Atlanta’s News explained, the suspect’s wife opened the door and let the reporters inside.  At the time, she had not yet learned of her husband’s arrest.  While inside her home, reporters filmed the woman as she fell to the floor hysterically crying.  CBS Atlanta aired the video of the woman’s outburst of emotion.  Apparently, right after the video aired on the local news, people called and wrote to the station, expressing frustration at the organization’s decision to air such deeply embarrassing private moments.

This morning, CBS Atlanta’s Director apologized for their decision to air the video.  He explained: “We want you to know we minute this story went on the air that we had made a terrible mistake in judgment.  It was wrong.  We were wrong and I apologize.”  He continued: “We will also use this video in future training sessions with our staff to show what we should NOT put on television.”

CBS Atlanta did not violate law — the suspect’s wife consented to the interview; she welcomed the camera crew into her home.  She was not coerced or filmed surreptitiously (at least as far as I can tell from the reports).  Instead, CBS Atlanta said that they regretted airing the story, even before the public responded with disapproval, and will not do so again.  It sent the message that such private moments in the home should remain private.  It seemingly expressed the view that society should, in these circumstances, respect a person’s dignity.  Whether or not CBS actually believes this, or instead reacted to audience dissatisfaction, seems of little moment.  What matters is what the Director’s words says to the public about privacy and how respecting someone’s dignity may mean deciding not to release certain information to the public.

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