7. Public interest / journalistic purpose

Some commentators question whether revealing participants’ faces serves a journalistic purpose. Is there value in showing the faces of individual people who participated in the party? Can the story be told just as well if the participants’ faces are obscured? Does the public value of telling the story outweigh the potential harm to participants?

“What’s the journalistic purpose here? To shame a bunch of kids or show that college-educated kids don’t have the cultural sensitivity they should?” Enkin asks. “What’s the consequence of naming and what editorial information does it bring to a person’s understanding of the story? You don’t want to be a nanny and protect people… That’s a balancing act.”

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For Turk, the decision to blur or not to blur ultimately comes down to a given news organization’s objective behind publishing the story.

“If the point of the story is to generate a public discussion about this kind of behaviour, then in no way is that story diminished [if the faces are blurred]. If the purpose of the story was to shame the individual students, then revealing who they are would be the issue,” he says. “It’s something that’s happened in a number of universities, so I think the interesting part of the story is the larger discussion.”

On the other hand, if the story was about vandalism, or if the individuals had come out in racist costumes at an alt-right rally, it would be perfectly appropriate to show their faces, Turk says. In those contexts, there’s a specific public interest in disclosing the identity of the offenders.

Crerar points out another way the partygoers’ identities could be in the public interest, even if the participants are not themselves public individuals. “If someone’s wearing a completely offensive costume, that may be some sort of a human rights complaint or an issue for the university,” he says. “There may be a public interest, even if the person is not a public figure.”

For Turk, in the beerfest example, the participants “weren’t trying to make a public statement in a public domain,” he says. “They were participating in a private party.”

While that doesn’t justify their behaviour, Turk stresses, it may change how the media should cover it. If media organizations can tell the story and provoke discussion about a social phenomenon without violating privacy, then they should, he says. To do otherwise would be “gratuitous.”

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Next: 8. The decision point