The “Queen of the Underworld” Reigns in Private

December 1, 2008 • Ethics and Quality • by

St. Galler Tagblatt, September 19, 2008
Social networks are increasingly important journalistic sources, but they’re hardly “rights-free” zones.

The day after she was killed, the dead girl’s friends could see their pictures in the tabloid newspapers.  The reporters had apparently been well served by the social network Studi VZ, and obtained photos from it.  Such networks are a new, profitable source for journalists.  The network users themselves render content accessible to journalists.  But should this material be available without restrictions?

In February 2007, Caroline B., a 21-year-old student, was murdered in Passau.  Thomas Mrazek, a Munich journalist, revealed on the website onlinejournalismus.de how two journalists profited by searching Studi VZ.  One of the journalists, a freelancer who works for the tabloid media, took the names of Caroline’s girlfriends from her network contacts, captured their photos with “Screenshot” and passed them along to his clients, who published the photos without naming their sources.  Another journalist, an editor with the regional newspaper Passauer Neue Presse, applied for an account under a false name to do his research, posing as a fellow student of Caroline’s.

Caroline’s online profile provided personal data (date of birth, favorite books, academic studies) and eccentric entries under the name of “Queen of the Underworld,” an alias she used, forging “diabolical schemes” to rule the world.  The editor constructed a personality profile using information from the site and excused this practice – in the face of Mrazek’s criticism – by saying that deadline pressure and limited material compelled him to resort to the network entries.

Social networks can be a rich source of information, especially for public figures, said Esther Diener-Morscher, a freelance journalist in Bern and vice president of the Swiss Press Council.  Heiner Käppeli regards social networks as a legitimate, though not always entirely trustworthy, source, which should be used with prudence due to the risk false entries created by third parties.  Käppeli is a journalist, a member of the executive board of the Lucerne Media Training Center and a member of the Swiss Independent Judicial Authority for Radio and Television.
Those working in the media must not confuse social networks for a “rights-free” zone.  Even here there are laws and regulations: protection of a person’s character, rights over the dissemination of one’s image, the inviolability of human dignity, intellectual property rights to images and texts, and an individual’s right to the control of his or her data.  In Switzerland, all personal data about private individuals is protected.  This includes information regarding medical conditions and legal records, as well as data about religious, ideological or political viewpoints and activities.
The “Caroline Case” brings up three main issues pertaining to media ethics: the alteration of images, research under false names and restrictions on data usage.  By and large, users themselves self-publish information to be used, they believe, only by other members of the network.
Are the network users themselves to blame?  Esther Diener-Morscher brushes this aside:  “It doesn’t mean that everything of a private nature, which is publicly visible in such networks, may be disseminated through the media without restrictions.  In particular, people who are not public figures have a very wide sphere of privacy.”  Heiner Käppeli also considers the social networks to be far from a “self-serve” option for journalists.  A person who posts a picture of himself on Studi VZ should not have to consider whether it will appear someday in Blick.  A photo should be regarded as personal information for the social network only.  Käppeli said, “When an image is published in a newspaper, it appears in another context and with another function, for instance, as an obituary photo.”  This becomes a problem within the spectrum of media ethics and personal legal rights.
The media code of ethics sets clear restrictions on publishing images, names or facts about private persons.  “The names of persons who are not generally in the public eye should be published by the media only with the consent of the parties involved,” Diener-Morscher said,  adding, “It’s the same with images. In the public domain it’s only permitted to photograph or film private persons if they have given their consent, or if their images are not cropped from photos.  There is an analogy for the Internet-using public:  whoever places his photo on a website or on a social network in no way gives permission for the media to disseminate the photo without restriction in an entirely different context – in this case, in connection with a murder. It is seen differently if the concerned parties – or in this case, the person’s relatives  –  give permission to the media to publish such a photo.”
In such a case, covert research by editors is dishonest and is clearly forbidden by the Swiss Press Code of Ethics (a similar restriction is also proposed by the German Code of Ethics).   For example, covert research conducted under false names is only permitted in Switzerland when an overriding public interest in this information exists and when this information is not otherwise available.  “There doesn’t appear to be an overriding public interest in this case, it seems to be mere curiosity,” said Diener-Morscher.
Both journalists stated that there are already guidelines and regulations, thus a special rule in the Press Code for the new phenomenon of “social networks” is not necessary.  The rules in Switzerland already encompass the field of “internet publishing.”
In principle, everything is under the Internet-user’s control.  But many people confide, in almost incomprehensible naivete, the details of their private lives and thoughts through these networks, utilizing entries as an outlet for solace, to give advice or sympathy, even to earn money.   Information which, at one time, may have been procured with difficulty from intelligence services or with Stasi-like methods is now given freely to network-companies.  Countless details and bits of information about the daily grind, political attitudes, sexual preferences – all is stored on the servers.  A virtual treasure chest, and not only for journalists: corporate personnel managers, insurance brokers – many others take interest in such data.
Perhaps a case like Caroline’s will bring about sobering changes. Some of Studi VZ’s registered users created an group called “Opponents of the Passauer Neuen Presse” – accessible to registered members only – where they monitor media and discuss Caroline’s case.  And the Studi VZ server dodged the bullet: for data purveyors, the loss of public confidence due to misuse of data is their greatest business risk.  A loss of public trust would turn a social network from a cash cow to a financial disaster.  Therefore they would do well to quickly take the advice of data protection specialists and user coalitions.  The reputation of such social networks would grow – and with that, the expectation of profits.  Last spring, the English information provider, Datamonitor, published a list of its clients.  Throughout Europe, there are currently 42 million people registered in social networks, and this number is expected to double in five years.
The favorite networks in Switzerland are MySpace (350,000 users) and Tillate.ch.  Add to that the specialized networks like Business-Netzwerk Xing, where, according to an informal poll of fewer than 177 businesspeople by the magazine Business-Netzwerk XingComputerworld,  everyone logs on to communicate with friends and colleagues and to keep an eye on competitors.
This form of communication service is only ostensibly free for its users.  They are led by a circuitous route to the checkout counter.  For example, Studi VZ’s concessionary “new business” offer for new members, in exchange for which they are invited to give their personal data for free.  But that’s another story…
By Marlis Prinzing
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