What is the “Public Interest”?

January 14, 2010 • Ethics and Quality • by

When and under which conditions is journalism in the “public interest?”

If one does not complacently assume whatever journalists publish is serving the common good, one gets into trouble finding a plausible answer to this question, or even an answer on which consensus may be reached. Stephen Whittle and Glenda Cooper from the Reuters Institute at Oxford University set out to provide clarification on the subject with their study, “Privacy, Probity and the Public Interest,” which asks when peeking through a keyhole or whipping out a camera phone is justified in the conflict between private sphere and public service.

White and Cooper may not deliver breathtaking new insights, yet their research, which focuses on a selection of widely-discussed cases of media coverage in the U.K., gets close to the point.

The authors remind us of the important distinction between “the public interest“ and “the public’s interest,”  for everything to capture the attention of readers, listeners and viewers is not necessarily of the common interest. New technologies – the Internet in particular – are identified as driving forces redefining the private sphere in society. However, according to the authors, “sex and sexuality, health, family life, personal correspondence and finance“ continue to be spheres essentially viewed as private “except where public money is concerned.”

The first of four trends affecting journalism, according to the authors, is that “Privacy is becoming commoditized. Celebrities are increasingly selling off selected parts of their private life through a complaisant media while protecting other parts through the courts.” Next, while many regard “what happens on blogs or social network sites such as Facebook as semi-private, journalists see it as information in the public domain.” Thus, journalists use such site as information sources. In the U.K., “courts seem to be moving towards a much stricter interpretation of privacy,” particularly “when photographs are involved.” Yet restrictions on resources, scarcity of time due to “the increasing speed of the news cycle” and “perceived public indifference” were seen as more significant obstacles to investigative journalism than concerns over privacy. As a decision-making device, Whittle and Cooper recommend journalists consider what they call an “impact test,” asking whether they are “exposing issues which have the potential to impact the lives of a number of people rather than simply being interesting to the prurient.”

Also investigating whether journalism falls in the public interest (thus becoming eligible for public subsidy) are Leonard Downie, former editor-in-chief of the Washington Post, and Michael Schudson, journalism professor at Columbia University. Downie and Schudson conducted an in-depth analysis of American journalism and how to go about reconstructing it. They found adequately staffed newsrooms indispensable to the production of “accountability journalism,” which is what they’ve labeled investigative reporting aimed at controlling the powerful, forcing responsibility and justified decisions. The authors were unable to support the idea that advertising revenue could adequately finance the journalistic ecosystem, although they express hope that it will be replaced with a combination of commercial activities, public subsidies, initiatives from universities and philanthropy. Such optimism could be viewed with sympathy or skepticism – regardless, their concept requires further elaboration.

Alas, media researchers encounter difficulty with the concept of public service as well. Demonstrating at an international conference in Winterthur, Switzerland, media researchers gathered from as far as Australia to voice the belief that journalism research, too, lies in the public interest. Nearly every speaker explicitly referred to the “public interest,” though none managed to provide a detailed description of what such a common cause might be. One point, however, was clarified: As long as researchers continue to publish results in scientific journals, using incomprehensible terminology, only reaching out to an elite handful of colleagues, society will hardly benefit from their efforts – nor will journalists, PR professionals and media managers to whom most scholarly research and acquired knowledge is referring.

Above all, hats off to Downie and Schudson! Media researchers and journalists alike should follow their example in targeting publications. A short version of their report was made available by the Washington Post, a more detailed piece can be found – with captivating comments from prominent media experts for added value – in the Columbia Journalism Review, and the original, full-length version can be downloaded on the Internet.

By Stephan Russ-Mohl & Rukhshona Nazhmidinova, published in Schweizer Journalist Nr. 12/2009 + 1/2010


Stephen Whittle/Glenda Cooper: Privacy, Probity and Public Interest, University of Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

Leonard Downie/Michael Schudson: The Reconstruction of American Journalism, Columbia University: School of Journalism

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