Sports Law Blog
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Saturday, November 21, 2009
Journalism Ethics Run Amuck, Once Again
The Associated Press published a story yesterday on a very tragic, sensitive and private matter involving the death of a famous professional athlete's mother. The report not only discusses details surrounding the death, but also personal information about the player's relationship with his mother.
The issue here is not whether the facts of this publication are untrue. The disclosure of private facts tort claim subjects the press to liability for the publication of truthful private matters that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person and that are not of legitimate public concern. In many respects, we as a society have become brainwashed into thinking that the press has a constitutional privilege to publish whatever truthful matters it wants, especially when the matter involves a public figure. But surprisingly, the Supreme Court has given very limited attention to the constitutional privilege of the press to publish truthful private facts and has addressed the issue in only one case involving a public disclosure of private facts tort claim (see Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn, 420 U.S. 469 (1975)), and its holding in that case was deliberately and explicitly narrow. Such little guidance by the Supreme Court naturally leaves state and federal courts wide discretion to determine what constitutes a "legitimate public concern" (a/k/a newsworthiness) and to balance the conflicting interests of individual privacy and press freedom.
As I discuss at length in my law review article Tort Law and Journalism Ethics, state and federal courts have proffered varying definitions of newsworthiness. The California Supreme Court in Shulman v. Group W Productions, Inc., 955 P.2d 469 (Cal. 1998) recognized that a broad "public domain" view of the First Amendment privilege, i.e. any information readily available to the public, would swallow the public disclosure of private facts claim. Regarding matters involving public figures, the court set forth what I believe is the proper standard for newsworthiness: "[T]he evaluation of newsworthiness depends on the degree of intrusion and the extent to which the plaintiff played an important role in public events, and thus on a comparison between the information revealed and the nature of the activity or event that brought the plaintiff to public attention. Some reasonable proportion is . . . to be maintained between the events or activity that makes the individual a public figure and the private facts to which publicity is given."
In other words, there must be a nexus or connection between the private information published and the public activity that makes the person a public figure. Here is an excerpt from my law review article:
There is a very tenuous connection between the details surrounding the death of a player's mother and what makes the player a public figure, that being his status as a professional athlete. This publication, having no social value and intruding into an extremely tragic, private and sensitive personal matter, turns journalism ethics standards on its head.
"The relevance/nexus factor is a critical component in balancing the First Amendment and journalism ethics standards because such an inquiry takes into account the purpose, or reason, for the publication of the matter. If there is a remote nexus or connection between the truthful matter and the event or activity that brought the plaintiff to public attention or that made him or her a public figure, then the societal First Amendment interest in the information is much less compelling because the purpose for publication becomes primarily one of sensational prying into private affairs for its own sake or one of pandering to lurid curiosity."