Public Interest vs Private Lives: When Is It Okay To Disclose Victim Information?

Madolyn Smith

On the 6th of July 1989, television coverage of the 405 bus terrorist attack in Israel showed graphic footage of victims’ remains. Not only were images uncensored but one woman was also able to identify her sister from the video before receiving formal notification from the authorities. This incident forced reporters to ask; when is it appropriate to publish images of victims’, is it in the public interest to do so, and what privacy considerations must be taken into account?

Twenty-four years later, and the growth of social media has meant journalists are constantly forced to answer these questions. It is relatively easy to determine the whereabouts of victims via Google Person Finder and access information about them through services like Facebook. Photos of events can be uploaded instantaneously and victims’ privacy is at risk of being compromised more than ever before. In an incident eerily similar to the 405 bus footage, Buzzfeed’s coverage of the Boston Bombings included an image of one victim’s body. Although the photo was later taken down, it prompted many to ask the question; just because information is available, does this mean news organisations should run it?

Determining what is in the Public Interest

There is no clear consensus between media practitioners as to what is in the public’s interest to broadcast. Standards differ between countries, organisations, and journalists themselves depending upon the nature of the event and the purpose of publication. In a disaster situation, reporters often act as the gatekeepers of information, and can be responsible for disseminating information to people both within the crisis zone and outside of it. The public interest will differ according to the intended audience, and journalists are faced with the difficult job of adjusting privacy considerations in light of this.

Balancing the Public Interest with Victims’ Privacy

In the absence of official or efficient reporting mechanisms it is arguably in the public interest to disclose information about an individual’s ‘status’. Victims and their families desperately want to know information about the whereabouts of their loved ones and may not be able to access this without the help of the media. Although most Western systems require families to be notified of deaths before the media, Japanese codes allow the press to publish the names of the dead without restrictions. Social media has expedited the identification process, as evidenced through the use of Google Person Finder to locate people in the aftermath of the 2011 Tsunami. Without news broadcasts addressing the whereabouts of missing people, concerned family members would’ve had to visit evacuation centres individually. However, given the sensitivity of delivering this information, it is incredibly important that information is accurate. Entries on Google Person Finder are not verified, and there were incidences of malicious false information being posted.

Conversely, in the United States, the media is prevented from disclosing the names of victims until families have been notified. Consequently, reporters face a difficult ethical dilemma whether or not to publish graphic images of victims, as they run the risk of inadvertently breaking the news to relatives. Hurricane Katrina prompted many practitioners to readdress these issues. The US’ Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) famously asked the media not to publish photos of deceased victims, causing outrage amongst many journalists, and illustrating the fine line between comprehensive reporting and victims’ privacy.

“Out of respect for the deceased [and their families] … FEMA has asked that images not be shown. But it’s up to the media whether they’re shown or not.” – Mark Pfeifle, FEMA Spokesperson

In spite of the FEMA request, the New York Times ran a photo of a floating body on its front page. Whilst the Times’ photo did not show the victim’s face, many other news organisations chose to run much more graphic images which could allow for easy identification. For some, such as Kenny Irby, the use of these images was important to demonstrate the harrowing impact of the Hurricane and help mobilise funds to support victims.

“This appears to be an overt attempt by FEMA to minimize the visual impact of this tragedy. The public needs to see the impact of our inadequate planning and deficient response to this national disaster. It is the media’s responsibility to report on and present this horrific story with compassion and sensitivity for the stakeholders.” – Kenny Irby, Visual Journalism Group Leader

Others, like photojournalist Ted Jackson, relayed first hand accounts of how victims had been outraged by reporters capturing the most intimate moments of horror faced by them. This example highlights the blurred line between what is in the public interest and what violates an individual’s privacy, reinforcing the need for reporters to consider both equally when deciding what to publish.

“I tried to tell him why this was important, that others needed to know what was happening here. My God, I thought, this is history. I told him we would sit down one day over coffee, and I’d justify the pictures. “I’ll never have coffee with the likes of you,” he said.” – Ted Jackson, photojournalist reporting on Hurricane Katrina

Journalists must also be wary of the implications that publishing particular information about victims can have on them. There have been many examples where the media has ‘outed’ homosexual victims, with ensuing repercussions in their private lives. Similar effects of identifying personal attributes can also be seen in the crisis context. Recently, for instance, Indian officials released information about a gang rape victim’s identity to the press, in spite of the potential risks to her personal safety and mental wellbeing.

Beyond a discussion of ethics, journalists are constantly constrained by legal privacy provisions. Naturally, these differ from place to place, but generally are not an issue if victims give consent. The case of Ruth Shulman is a prime example of this. Ms Shulman was involved in a car accident that happened to be filmed for a reality TV show without her knowledge. She took the media organisation to court for invasion of privacy, and won based on the fact that medical care has an expectation of privacy. This was weighed against the benefit to the public gained by broadcasting.

So while journalists are bound by legal privacy obligations, outside of these they are faced with a grey ethical area. The public interest may be considered by some to outweigh the privacy of individuals, while other reporters may choose to omit personal information. Ultimately, the decision is up to the organisation.

The following resources are useful in assisting these ethical and legal decisions:


This article was originally published on the European Journalism Centre’s Emergency Journalism website on November 15, 2013.

Photo credit: Flickr CC g4ll4is

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