A Question About: Tyler Hicks and the Qaddafi Album, Part II

During the fall of Tripoli in August, photojournalist Tyler Hicks found and published through the The New York Times Lens Blog a personal photography album of Muammar el-Qaddafi. After its publication, questions arose about the decision to do so. To get a response to the questions surrounding the case, we contacted three experts in media ethics for their thoughts.

This is Part 2 of 2 and features responses from Patrick Lee Plaisance, Associate Professor, Department of Journalism and Technical Communication, Colorado State University and Stephen J. A. Ward, Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics, Director, Center for Journalism Ethics, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Part 1 was published Tuesday and featured a response from Bill Reader, Associate Professor, E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.

The question: Obviously Qaddafi was a dictator with a lot to answer for, but is there an ethical line crossed by Tyler Hicks in publishing Qaddafi's personal photography album? In a devil's advocate analogy, if the police accuse and suspect someone of mass murder, enter their house and an accompanying journalist finds and publishes that person's personal photography album, I think most would agree a line has been crossed. If an accused war crimes suspect leaves an album behind while fleeing and the same thing happens, is a line crossed? How do the rules of war change the ethics of journalism?

The respondent: Patrick Lee Plaisance, Associate Professor, Department of Journalism and Technical Communication, Colorado State University

The response: I do not have any ethical concerns with the NYT decision to publish Qaddafi's albums. I think your suggested comparison with a mass murderer's belongings is in large part a false analogy. In that suggested scenario, other important factors would have to be weighed: justification/method for journalists' access, status of police investigation, legal custody of confiscated material, etc. Qaddafi is a well-established, notorious international public figure. The only question to be raised here, if there is one, would be one of privacy. But any claim of invasion of privacy in the Qaddafi case would be based on a mistaken notion that our privacy represents an "absolute" value rather than an "instrumental" value. We in the West commonly make this mistake in privacy debates. We value privacy not for its own sake (in an absolutist way that automatically "trumps" all other considerations), but for what it enables us to do. We all require privacy to 1) provide a "space" for self-development, and to 2) maintain the social fabric, allowing us to fulfill different social roles and functions. In our individualistic-oriented culture, this idea that privacy has a critical social function strikes many as counterintuitive (but sociologists and other theorists are very clear on this; see my overview of privacy in the "Privacy" chapter of my book Media Ethics: Key Principles for Responsible Practice). To assume that the value of privacy allows us to"'check out" of society at will, to dodge accountability or to shield people/things from public scrutiny merely to avoid discomfort is a common misunderstanding of the nature of privacy. So, any claim of privacy in the Qaddafi case strikes me as incoherent because the publication of the material does not undermine the key reasons why Qaddafi's privacy ought to be respected. Unless a case can articulate why publication thwarts his ability for self-development or maintenance of his various social roles, any claim to privacy here is unjustifiably vague and rests on merely sentimental and absolutist assumptions about why and how privacy is to be honored in the first place. In addition, the events in Libya obviously represent an important historical moment. I would also argue that as a notorious international public figure, Qaddafi's privacy is greatly outweighed by the imperative to document history. There is no effective rationale to "shield" his family album on the basis of privacy as we should properly understand that value, and there are compelling reasons why that album, just like the personal effects of other historical figures (e.g., Napoleon, Gandhi, JFK, Churchill, etc.), are justifiably entered into the public realm. The nature of such an album is that of a record; shielding it from publication unacceptably prioritizes the agenda/sentiments of one individual (and thus cedes control of the historical narrative) over the need for a comprehensive documentation of human existence (if one wants to get grandiose about it). [via email November 27th, 2011]

The respondent: Stephen J. A. Ward, Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics, Director, Center for Journalism Ethics, University of Wisconsin-Madison

The response: An interesting question. Drawing the line here is difficult. It would seem to me that Qaddafi and other tyrants and world figures can expect less privacy rights that other people. Certainly, in this case, we are dealing with a person who remains a mystery to many people, whose personal life is directly relevant to understanding his public decisions and to exposing, in a word, his brutality and his lies. For these reasons, I think The NY Times can make a strong public interest claim for publishing these pictures. However, I do acknowledge that there are other cases where such a justification does not work, as you mention. [via email September 16th, 2011]