Internet privacy or public spectacle? An ethical dilemma for journalists

by Amanda Stutt
May 12, 2008

As the dust settles after the Eliot Spitzer scandal, one has to wonder what palpable abuses were really uncovered. Was it about abuse of the public trust by a politician, or abuse of power by the media?

New York’s powerhouse Governor had presidential aspirations and a record of hard-line stances on “moral” issues. He notoriously prosecuted prostitution rings as an attorney. But Eliot Spitzer was revealed to be a hypocrite. The married advocate of prostitution prohibition was exposed as a solicitor of the sexual services of a 22-year old call girl.

So he publicly resigned, and stood disgraced before the masses, eyes lowered. Next to him stood his traumatized wife, eyes also lowered, simultaneously acquiescing to the power of the media. They knew they had been thrown to the wolves for Spitzer’s “private failings”.

What resonates most soundly from that spectacle is the image of Silda’s shamed face. The media seized the sensationalism and dangled Spitzer’s shame before the public, but the image of a traumatized Silda proved most unsettling. 


AMANDA STUTT is a graduate student at the UBC School of Journalism. She completed a B.A. in English Literature and Sociology. Her writing has appeared in the Ubyssey, The Seed, the Tyee, the Thunderbird and The Vancouver Sun. She specializes in advocacy reporting.

Prior to the scandal, Spitzer was regarded as something of a professional “hero”. In terms of performance in the public sphere, Spitzer’s slate was pretty clean. 

But Spitzer was removed from office with one fell swoop once it was revealed he was the identity behind the internet mask, “client 9”. Spitzer may have had blind faith in the privacy of his internet pseudonym, as did “Kirsten”, his accomplice in the masquerade.

It is certainly in the public interest to have the hypocrisies of their leaders revealed. But media evidently weren't satisfied to leave it at that.

Instead, the public met Ashley Dupre, the 22-year-old woman behind the curtain. Anyone with an operable internet browser can now see who “Kristen” really is: In a series of photographs, you can see Ashley out with her friends, enjoying holidays with her family, or on vacation.

Citizen journalism blogs and social networking sites have made public figures’ private lives more easily accessible, and journalists view social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook as virtual goldmines for identifying sources, and digging up personal information on the unwittingly implicated.

This raises an ethical dilemma within the journalism profession. Did media have an inherent right to intrude upon and provide public access to Dupre’s private life? Did the media websites like overstep boundaries when it posted pictures of Dupre  enjoying private moments with family?

Media had no legal obligation to seek permission to use the MySpace gallery, but the ethical dilemma hangs in the air. And as the Spitzer scandal revealed, some media are willing to seize and sensationalize details of a source’s private world with a decidedly unethical impunity.

Further, her personal struggles were evidently fair game for a media that acted with haste and poor judgment. Dupre’s private life is no longer private — she is now a public figure — but maybe not in the way she anticipated.

On her MySpace page, Dupre admitted she had “left a broken home. Left abuse. Had abused drugs. Been broke and homeless.” Dupre was victimized by circumstances that put her at a social and economic disadvantage, and victimized again by the media scrutiny and invasion into her personal plight.

She will be forever known as the ‘prostitute’ who brought down a governor. Media seized on an instance and figuratively branded her for life. So is anyone who posts information on the internet putting their personal lives on display for media to exploit?

UBC Journalism Professor and former BBC News Editor Alfred Hermida studies the effects of new technologies on the media. 

“The issue here is whether by publishing on her personal site on MySpace is the same as making them available for the media to republish,” Hermida said. “Just because the photos are available online does not automatically mean that the media have permission to use them.”

Hermida believes journalists should consider the context in which information was posted on social networking sites and be sensitive to whether the images were meant for public consumption. It comes down to making an ethical decision about using information posted on social networking sites.

The main question for Hermida is whether this information would benefit the “public good.”

“There was a voyeuristic element in how the media used some of the material…,” he said. “Sites like Gawker boasted about having an exhaustive photo gallery…It is also interesting to note that one of the most commonly used photos was of Dupre in a bikini, rather than some of the more modest photos.”

Hermida also noted: “The media as a whole was aggressive in seeking out any tidbit of information online about Dupre, but she bears some responsibility for making it easy for journalists by being so open online. It should serve as a warning to anyone posting private details online — do not publish anything you would not be comfortable with being public.”

The private lives of public figures have long been the focus of morbid fascination for some media and Dupre unwittingly played right into the fray when she used social networking sites and didn’t fine-tune her privacy settings.

Media seized the opportunity without displaying much sensitivity. ‘Media’ and ‘sensitivity’ are concepts that tend to be in opposition in a profession that includes a relentless paparazzi machinery that thinks nothing of going through a movie star’s trash, or of stalking celebrities with a camera to the point of emotional breakdown.

Dupre is young. She was economically disadvantaged. Feminists would argue she was forced into prostitution for reasons with broad societal implications, and that Spitzer, by using her socially subordinate position to his advantage to gain access to her sexually, abused her.

Media’s treatment of Ashley Dupre reveals a macro-level issue: disregarding the ethical issues of privacy and persecution when dealing with internet content is an abuse of media power that is long overdue for systematic scrutiny.

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