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  • Last modified 8 days ago (Sept. 21, 2022)

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Do privacy rights
beget public wrongs?

No one wants to force anyone to air their dirty laundry — unless, of course, you’re forced to sleep in someone else’s sheets.

The news business has many mottos: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” “Afflict the comfortable; comfort the afflicted.” “Feed the watchdog; starve the lapdog.”

But a laundry metaphor seems as snug to the profession as a fitted sheet, and we don’t mean the old Don Henley “Dirty Laundry” lyrics deriding “the bubble-headed bleach-blonde who comes on at 5” for sticking her “dirty little fingers in everybody’s pies.”

Henley got it right in writing: “People love it when you lose; they love dirty laundry.” But that’s only for people they don’t know. In a small community, that’s often a small number. When nearly everyone knows nearly everyone else, crinolines become more fashionable than bikinis in clothing the truth.

Still, there’s a fine line between privacy and cover-up. Even when privacy is a logical and laudable goal, it may end seeming to be a less logical, less laudable cover-up instead.

Two stories this week — both involving schools and sports — come to mind. In a world turned upside down by a weekend of NFL shockers, with Duke and KU about to face each other as undefeateds in football not basketball, the ironies may be worth ironing out.

The facts are simple: A Hillsboro student broke an ankle playing football last week, and Centre suspended an assistant middle school volleyball coach for an undisclosed misdeed.

The implications are not nearly as simple.

Our reporter at the Hillsboro football game attempted to take a few photos — not to show the player’s pain, not to make a gruesome attempt to depict the wound, but rather to show the love, care, and compassion on the faces of coaches, teammates, and fans and the professionalism of those tending the injury.

Our attempt to find beauty amid tragedy was greeted, however, in the ugliest way possible, by threats and derision from those who felt it intrusive.

In truth, anything that depicts emotion is in some way intrusive. It’s the motive, not the image, that makes it ethical or exploitive. And, believe it or not, one of the things every ethical journalist attempts to do is avoid being exploitive.

Every journalist I know has a collection of photos and stories he or she never published not because they wouldn’t generate readership but because they would have done so in a morally questionable way.

Finding the proper balance between serving a positive for the entire community and imposing any sort of negative on individuals within it is at the forefront of virtually every decision every journalist makes.

While a photo of an injury almost always would be a close call, meriting careful examination of a photo itself, naming an injured athlete is far less fraught with peril.

How would it further injure an injured warrior to let others know exactly whom to hold in their prayers for quick, complete, and painless recovery?

The Centre suspension is an even clearer example of balancing community vs. individual needs. Laws don’t specify that reasons for discipline be kept secret. They merely allow them to remain secret if there’s no overwhelming reason for the public to know.

In this case, we don’t know whether the public should be kept in the dark — if, for example, this is merely some minor lapse in decorum — or whether the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few — if, for example, the behavior might have been grossly inappropriate.

By saying nothing, Centre board members and administrators leave the public without any reassurance that the transgression was innocent. Rather than calm concerns, their silence makes those concerns grow among those outside the small circle of those in the know.

Hoping for the best but assuming the worst is a human foible that silence can feed until it becomes a failing and we begin acting as if the worst must be true.

None of us should pretend to have the answers to any of these questions, but all of us need to understand that the answers are not immutable — that a little bit of disclosure often does more to ensure respectful privacy than does absolute refusal to share anything in public.

What sheets do you want to be sleeping in tonight? Ones you know are clean because you’ve seen them aired out? Or some you’re not so sure about?

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Sept. 21, 2022

 

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