Editorial Discretion and Private Lives

Recent events have caused me to think about the ethics of editorial discretion. In particular, how should authors, editors, and publishers take into account the harm caused by publicizing information about other people’s private lives?

Over the weekend, an online magazine made a very poor editorial choice. A writer for the magazine wrote a piece about the proper use of the term “bro.” The piece included the sentence: “And I just don’t think the diminutive label of ‘bro’ should be to describe more insidious sexism, let alone violent aggression like rape threats.” The words “rape threats” were hyperlinked to a single tweet by a female journalist.* The tweet was addressed directly to another person on Twitter, in which the journalist had used a variant of the word “bro” in briefly alluding to rape threats she had received. (For non-Twitter-users: when a tweet begins with the “@” symbol and the username of another person on Twitter, only the sender and recipient of the tweet, and any people who happen to follow both users, will see the tweet. Other people can then find the tweet, which is technically public, but doing so requires a specific search.)

When the magazine published the piece, the female journalist objected, understandably, on several grounds: (1) the piece suggested that she had talked about her own rape threats the “wrong way”; (2) the piece gratuitously drew attention to those rape threats in a way that would likely provoke more threats; (3) the piece alluded to her rape threats casually, like any other material that might be thrown into a piece to make a point; and (4) the piece made an example of something that she had chosen to keep mostly private and that was undoubtedly disturbing to her.

Ultimately the magazine removed the link (as the text at the beginning of the piece now explains) and apologized to the journalist. Unfortunately, that was not the end of the matter. Various people defended the piece and its original link. An editor at the magazine described the journalist’s reaction as “dishonest, childish bullshit.” Discussion of the matter expanded to many other forums. Last night, the journalist signed off Twitter, saying that the rape threats had intensified and now included her young daughter.

First of all — and contrary to some less informed commentators’ views — this is not a First Amendment issue. The First Amendment only applies to government action. There’s no government action here. Everybody should stop talking about the First Amendment in relation to this event immediately.

To some degree, this is a privacy issue, even though the tweet was technically public. Woodrow Hartzog and Evan Selinger have contested the notion of online privacy as binary, both in a piece for Forbes and in the Atlantic, and Hartzog and Frederic Stutzman have elaborated on the concept in an excellent scholarly article. In the view of these commentators, the Internet is not divided neatly into non-overlapping spheres of public and private. Decisions about how we share information, and with whom, often reflect a complex calculus that relies on “obscurity” — the difficulty with which information can be found — rather than either absolute privacy or absolute publicity. They argue that the law should recognize this reality.

This approach makes a great deal of sense when considering the way that people actually use the Internet. One doesn’t expect that the general public will dredge up a single tweet she sent directly to one person weeks ago, or that the general public will scour her friends’ public Facebook pictures for untagged pictures of her, or that the general public will search out her Instagram account and troll through hundreds of pictures. Even though all of these things are technically “public” — in the sense that someone could unearth them with time and effort — Hartzog and Stutzman draw a distinction between “theoretically accessible” and “public.” They suggest that under certain circumstances Internet users could be legally bound to a “duty to maintain obscurity,” under which they cannot make information less obscure than it already is.

Privacy issues aside, however, the most important issue here is one of editorial discretion. My view is that editors should not draw attention to material about people’s private lives — even online material that falls in the category of “theoretically accessible” — when the material published contributes little or nothing to discourse, is of little or no public concern, and will cause harm to the person involved. This was precisely the case with the female journalist’s tweet and the way it was incorporated into the magazine’s story as originally written. The link to the tweet adds nothing to the story. A woman’s brief mention of her own rape threats — and the way that she chooses to talk about them — is not a matter of broad public concern. And the harm created by drawing greater attention to the threats is potentially devastating, as the journalist’s experience has already revealed.

These editorial best practices are particularly important given what Soraya Chemaly has described as the “digital safety gap” — the fact that women and other targeted groups (non-white people; LGBT people; those with disabilities, etc.) receive disproportionate amounts of threats and harassment when they choose to be active online. The extent and severity of this harassment can hardly be overstated; I’ve created a bibliography of articles on the topic just from the past six months, primarily concerning harassment of women. Sometimes women do choose to speak out about their own online harassment, including rape threats, but doing so often comes at a significant cost. That cost includes more threats, more harassment, and, dishearteningly, skepticism and charges of exaggeration from others (particularly those who have experienced little in the way of threats or harassment themselves). The decision to speak publicly about rape threats is always a complex calculus, and one that should be up to the person who will have to deal with the consequences of speaking publicly.

So is an author legally allowed to dig up technically public information about someone else, and is an editor legally allowed to approve the piece, and is a website legally allowed to publish it? Sure. But that’s not the point. The point is that just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s the ethical thing to do. The point is that authors, editors, and online venues all have a choice either to worsen the online conditions for women or to make them better. And discretion exercised to worsen these conditions is discretion poorly used.

*Although this incident has now been extensively discussed in the public domain, I have chosen not to identify either the journalist or the online magazine in this post because my hope is to avoid contributing in even a small way to the problems I’ve identified. If someone thinks the post contains something that amplifies the harm created by the original piece and hyperlink, please let me know and I will amend it immediately.