Reading Tonya’s Mail
By Chip Rowe
Just as in life outside the online world, many of the dilemmas posed by online reporting can be resolved with common sense. Generally, anything that would be unethical in the real world won't earn you too many online friends.
Chip Rowe, a former AJR associate editor, is an editor at Playboy.
"The technology may be different, but the situations are not," says the Washington Post's John Schwartz. "Journalism is still about dealing with people."
Take the reporters who used skater Tonya Harding's birthdate password to read her electronic mail during the Winter Olympics. Reporters from the San Jose Mercury News, New York Times and Detroit Free Press were embarrassed in February after a colleague caught them peering together into Harding's electronic mailbox and reported the incident to the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Some writers, among them humorist Dave Barry of the Miami Herald, expressed outrage that the reporters had been singled out. He points out that Harding's birthdate password was common knowledge (it could be seen on her ID tag in a news photo) and used by hundreds of curious journalists at the games. Others argue that just looking at a list of her mail, as some reporters had done, was not unethical, and the fact that she hadn't changed her password from her birthdate, made its use no worse than reading a letter left on someone's desk.
That didn't wash with many online journalists, among them Alex Johnson, assistant news editor at Knight-Ridder's Washington bureau. After pointing out that "a bank robber does not get off simply because he failed to make off with any money," he heard from many journalists who felt the same way.
Says Matt Reavy of the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, "We need to come out and publicly condemn these actions as plainly unethical."###