7th July 2012
By Wendy Collinson

The Public Interest

Is it in the Public’s Interest?

The most common justification that journalists make for their work is that it is “in the public interest.” It is this notion that underscores the moral authority of journalism to ask hard questions of people in power, to invade the privacy of others and to sometimes test the limits of ethical practice in order to discover the truth.

But what exactly is the public interest? And how do journalists ensure that they always respect it in the way they work?  The following text goes some way to providing answers and owes much to a recent posting of Bob Egginton on the journalism support site Media Helping Media.

Put simply, the public interest is about what matters to everyone in society. It is about the common good, the general welfare and the security and well-being of everyone in the community we serve.

The public interest is not just what the readers, listeners or viewers want either as consumers or people who want to be entertained.

It is about issues that affect everyone, even if many of them are not aware of it or even if they don’t appear to care.

Normally, it is clear to journalists and editors what is and what is not in the public interest, but sometimes it’s a complex question, particularly where privacy is concerned. It may be useful, therefore, to try to apply a public interest test.

The first task, however, is to separate what is in the public interest from those things members of the public are interested in; they are not necessarily the same.

Many people may be interested, for instance, in celebrity and popular culture, and demonstrably less interested in the dull realities of public services. But the potential for dramatic impact on peoples’ lives makes the provision of basic services – transport, education, health, sanitation, for instance – absolutely vital matters of public concern.

Just because the public is interested in something has nothing to do with whether it is in the public interest.

The public interest is in having a safe, healthy and fully-functioning society. In a democracy, journalism plays a central role in that. It gives people the information they need to take part in the democratic process. That is why there is a public service ethic at the heart all of serious journalism.

If journalists are good at their job, and to win the trust of the public they must hold governments and other institutions to account and they must act and behave ethically.

The Media Helping Media site’s training modules on editorial ethics cover many of the issues involved.

But sometimes there are reasons to vary from standard, good practice, in order to bring an important subject to the public’s attention.
Journalists should be open and honest about who and what they are. They should always give their names and say which news organisation they work for.

However, sometimes a journalist may have to resort to subterfuge to expose wrongdoing. Such acts of deception are normally to be avoided, but if it is necessary to deliver justice it may be justified in the wider public interest.

The Privacy Test

Privacy is the critical test of ethical journalism and the public interest. Journalists should not intrude into the private lives of ordinary people, after all most people do not live in the glare of public life.

But people who are public figures – politicians, or corporate leaders, or people who exploit and rely on their public image for their livelihood, or who carry a public responsibility such as police officers, teachers and doctors – are sometimes people whose private affairs may have an important impact on their public duties.

Media intrusion, ethically justified by reasons of the public interest, exposes hypocrisy and dishonesty. But whenever it is used it must be justified. The reasons for the intrusion must be clearly explained to the public. It must be linked to the wider public interest.
Some countries build “the public interest” into their legal systems. For example, a number of countries protect “whistleblowers” who speak out about wrongdoing in their place of work. It is important, therefore, to examine the legal conditions in which information is given and whether or not it has legal protection when it is revealed in the public interest.

The Impact Test

One important way of testing whether there is a public interest in journalistic work is to evaluate what the impact of publication will be. How will publication affect the people – who will suffer and who will benefit? Does wider society benefit from publication?

This is a difficult and delicate judgment, and each case must be judged carefully. At stake is not just the potential victims of poor reporting, but the reputation of journalists and the media organisation may well suffer if publication is perceived as not acting in the public interest.

An interesting case concerns the actions of a tabloid newspaper in the United Kingdom which began publishing pictures and names and addresses of known paedophiles as part of a “name and shame” campaign. This was cut short after considerable protests over whether the wider public interest was served by putting some of these individuals at risk of public hostility.

The decision on the question of public interest needs to be taken at the highest level. The decision must be taken by the editor, or the highest available authority in your news organisation. Even so, it may not be the right one, but where controversy is possible it is always wise for there to be a proper reflection on the issues and possible consequences.

Normally publications should seek to correct significant wrongs, should promote the well-being, welfare and safety of the public, should raise public awareness of important issues and should make a contribution towards promoting good conduct in public life.

The public interest tests set out here can help journalists to resolve difficult ethical dilemmas. Even when they have to do work that sometimes does not fit well with their obligations to be open they can preserve their integrity and maintain their ethical balance when they can justify acting in the public interest.

Photo by Rich Mason, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)