Nicolas Kristof last week penned an op-ed apologizing to Dr. Hatfill, the scientist initially presumed responsible for the anthrax attacks in 2002. Kristof describes the public hounding that media and law enforcement let loose on Hatfill during their 2002 investigation, and asks readers to consider the larger principles involved, requesting we “don the mantle of a journalist” while looking at the “larger question of what principles should govern the collision between the public interest in aggressive news coverage and the individual interest in privacy.”
It is an important piece, but a timid approach to a very important set of questions. Kristof lost an opportunity here to raise critical questions we face in the age of social-networking citizen journalists. What does it mean today to say “we in the press” today? How will privacy fare – can privacy fare – when publishing has become as easy as a click of the mouse?
There is much more to comment on here, but the only recent example coming to mind this evening is of Sarah Palin’s 17 year-old daughter. Turns out she is pregnant, and a number of left-wing bloggers might say it’s for the second time. I’m not about to weigh in on the politics here, except to say I feel quite sorry for the daughter. Whether she is or is not the father of the youngest Palin child has become irrelevant. It reminds me of the Kozinski mess (which I did write-up on the now-lost version of this blog), in that example it was a judge whose personal matters were interpreted by a one-man citzen-journalist army and fed into the mass media until the news cycle slowed enough to care.
Journalists are trained to consider questions such as those Kristof throws out – how to balance individual privacy interests with a public’s right to know. The piece was timid because, while he took the step of asking his readers to consider themselves journalists for the ten minutes it takes to read the piece, he didn’t insist they do so in their everyday digital lives, in the blogging, photo-tagging, wall-posting…all those little actions that leave a digital trail, so often traceable wherever we want it to lead.