2. Vulnerable Subjects and Privacy Rights

This kind of aggressive investigative journalism may raise a problem of balancing an individual’s rights to privacy and the public interest. In Canada, there are two federal privacy laws — the Privacy Act and the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act — and each province has its own privacy legislation. In Jones v. Tsige, the Court of Appeal for Ontario created the tort of intrusion upon seclusion, meaning that a person can be liable for an invasion of privacy if “an individual’s expectations of privacy has been violated, regardless of whether the material gathered is ever published.” [1] This precedent will affect how journalists deal with privacy, especially when they are using ambush interview techniques.

Journalists are more inclined to use jump interviews for public figures. The public’s perception of the interview subject can be important indicator of how journalists should treat them. Most often, those who need to be held publicly accountable are used to dealing with the press and are well aware of how the public will perceive them.

David Kaufman, who produced the fifth estate episode about Donzel Young’s case, recalls another jump interview the program conducted. The team confronted Karlheinz Schreiber at his home in Munich while reporting on the Airbus scandal. Kaufman says that because Schreiber seemed like a less vulnerable subject, the team was not conflicted over whether to run the footage:

The decision to surprise reluctant interview becomes more complex when the subject lacks media experience. Ordinary citizens who somehow become part of a larger story might be afraid or unprepared to speak to journalists, and might not want their privacy violated. If journalists decide they have exhausted all other avenues and still require a jump interview from a vulnerable subject, they should reflect on how they plan to use the footage in their story. Studer and Kaufman advised that journalists should be sensitive to the unequal power dynamic between reporter and interview subject, and reflect on whether or not the jump interview will exploit this person.

LISTEN: Kirk Lapointe discusses what he teaches students on dealing with vulnerable or inexperienced subjects.

The Canadian Association of Journalists describes in its ethics guidelines a reporter’s responsibility to respect the rights of Canadians’ privacy, especially when it comes to vulnerable subjects.

The guidelines acknowledge that “there are inevitable conflicts between the right to privacy, and the rights of all citizens to be informed about matters of public interest.” [2]

“Each situation should be judged in light of common sense, humanity and relevance,” read the guidelines. “We do not manipulate people who are thrust into the spotlight because they are victims of crime or are associated with a tragedy. Nor do we do voyeuristic stories about them. When we contact them, we are sensitive to their situations, and report only information in which the public has a legitimate interest.” [2]

Next: Perjury and the Unreliability of Eyewitness Testimony


Works Cited

[1] Thomas Rose, “What journalists need to know about newsgathering and the  indivudal’s right to privacy,” J-Source, September 17, 2013.
[2] Canadian Association of Journalists Ethics Advisory Committee, “Ethical  guidelines,” last updated June 2011. <http://www.caj.ca/ethics-guidelines/>

See also: Canadian Association of Journalists Ethics Advisory Committee, "On the Record: Is It Really Consent Without Discussion of Consequences?" Last   updated February 2014. <http://www.scribd.com/doc/210353384/CAJ-Ethics-Report-Informed-Consent-01-03-2014-FINAL-3>