Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Getting Personal: Private Lives and Public Figures

By Jessica Silliman

Peter Jacobs got his first job out of college at a small weekly newspaper with a circulation of 25,000. " Journalism is about a lot of personal choices," said Peter. "The media can be quite sensational. They sometimes report on things that just aren't news."

One circumstance early in his career presented Peter with that classic choice: when to bring the personal into the news. He had been at the job for about a year when he was assigned to cover the reelection campaign of the town mayor. He wasn't too excited about the assignment because his relationship with the mayor was mediocre at best-Peter never appreciated the mayor's self-indulgent, often vain, behavior.

At the beginning of the campaign, Peter heard rumors that the mayor was going through a messy divorce. No divorce papers had been filed at the county clerk's office, but that didn't mean the rumors weren't true-it could take weeks for the papers to become public.

Though the divorce could have been considered newsworthy in the eyes of some reporters, Peter felt that the mayor 's personal life had no business affecting his political career. Peter discussed the issue with the mayor briefly, but when the mayor responded with, "No comment," Peter didn't pursue it any further. "A divorce didn't make him any less of a leader," said Peter. Peter spoke with his editor about his decision, who told him that it was up to him, as the reporter, to decide whether personal life was relevant. Although Peter didn't like the mayor, he also decided that a pending divorce wasn't necessary for the public to know.

During several years as a journalist, Peter had become frustrated with the popular culture aspect of the news-both print and television. He was determined to get away from the tabloid-esque coverage and back to the hard-hitting news he had come to love. He felt newspapers had "gone Hollywood" and felt that each decision he made, such as his choice to not follow up on the mayor's divorce, could contribute to bettering the newspaper industry.

When the mayor was reelected, Peter's weekly newspaper printed a front-page photo of the mayor, with hands raised in the air. Peter quickly noticed he wasn't wearing a wedding ring.

"It just wasn't anyone's business," Peter said. "It wasn't the public's business. I could have dragged him and his divorce through the mud, but I just didn't think it was necessary."

Discussion Questions:

  • Did Peter make the right ethical decision? Why or why not?
  • Do you agree with Peter's assessment that newspapers have "gone Hollywood" ? Why or why not?
  • Do citizens who pay taxes have the right to know about a candidate's personal life? Do you think that the divorce of a politician is a private or public matter?
  • Is Peter's decision an appropriate selection of information or an inappropriate use of filtering?
  • If you had been Peter's editor, what would you have counseled Peter to do?

Jessica Silliman was a 2006-07 Hackworth Fellow at The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

June 2007


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