Gaddafi, Facebook and your deepest self

That’s correct, this post will convincingly tie those three disparate items together with a firm knot. There will be no slight of hand, though I encourage you to watch very carefully. (Image courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society)Let me begin:

The graphic images of former Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi’s death made for some interesting discussion in my journalism ethics seminar today. Our guest, University of Missouri professor Lee Wilkins was the emcee. It’s true that many a graduate seminar hold little interest to non-participants, but today’s got to the crux of human development.

Were the blood-soaked images of Gaddafi newsworthy or a disregard for human dignity? (Note: this does not mean “do people want to see it?” Journalists should make ethical decisions based on ethics, not audience appeal.) News values come in many forms: timeliness, proximity, prominence and usefulness, among others. The death of Gaddafi is newsworthy, but the gruesome images may not be. Of course, newsiness depends on who you are, where you’re located, etc. The larger question here is, should a dying person be unwillingly thrust into public view? Or are there moments of life during which human privacy should never be invaded?

To answer questions about the P-word, we dug deeper than emotional responses to news images. Lee defined privacy for us as control over information and the context in which it’s understood and accessed.Though privacy is necessary, the lines of private and public shift. Joshua Meyrowitz, author of No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior, used the terms “onstage” and “backstage.” They distiguish how people act in front of everyone else as opposed to on their own or with selected individuals. As his title implies, the digital age redefined onstage and backstage behavior. The book was published in a time (1985) when television was the main electronic player in altering the state of privacy. Imagine the subsequent smudging and shifting digital cameras, cellphones, the internet and social media initiated. I admit, I’ve found myself contemplating whether privacy is blurred to nothing more than a thin veil for only the most delicate situations.

As Mark Zuckerberg put it, “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.” For instance, would your grandmother have worried about broadcasting a “no longer in a relationship” news update to 762 friends after a severe break up? This and even more sensitive items appear on Facebook everyday (e.g. I saw the news of a family death broken to a son on Facebook). In today’s seminar, Lee pointed out that privacy options on Facebook are opt-in, rather than opt-out. Unless you actively choose to limit your audience, your photos, updates and profile will be broadly viewable.

Also, you actually pay for Facebook, like many free online services, with bits of private information. It’s like bartering, except you don’t really know the extent of the deal. If you browse through Facebook’s data use policy, you’ll find they know the pages you browse while logged in to Facebook and how they “instantly personalize” other websites for you.

Is privacy dead, as Scott McNealy stated over a decade ago? Not hardly. Privacy, Lee assured us, can never be obliterated because it is part of what makes us human. We need it. A true privacy void would make us insane, literally. Lee mentioned Guantanamo Bay Naval Base (GITMO) by way of example. The constant surveillance of prisoners at GITMO contributes to their psychological breakdown.

To borrow a thought from Media Ethics, a book Lee co-authored with Philip Patterson, people require privacy to both have and develop a sense of self. “…people need privacy to ‘try out’ new poses, future selves and so on, with out fear and ridicule by outsiders. If we are to become the person we wish to be, we need a certain degree of privacy to develop that person apart from observation.” (page 125).

Media dilemmas, generational shifts and technological changes are not new. Neither is the debate about the division of public and private lives. However, the dividing barrier is more of a line in the sand than a granite wall. Be aware of the line and how it is shifting, to preserve human dignity and your sanity.


(Image courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society)


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