Terms and Definitions
The following terms, used in the Editorial Standards, are defined and expanded upon below.
Public Interest is the notion that underscores the moral authority of journalism to ask hard questions of people in power, to invade the privacy of others and to sometimes test the limits of ethical practice in order to discover the truth.
Public interest is anything that is relevant to the lives and well-being of everyone in society. It is about the common good, meaning matters that affect our health, livelihoods, quality of life, security, and our governance. It is about issues that affect everyone, even if many of them are not aware of it or even if they don’t appear to care.
The public interest does not mean what the public might find interesting. Many people may be interested in celebrity and popular culture, and less interested in the details of public services. But the potential for dramatic impact on peoples’ lives makes the provision of basic services – transport, education, health, sanitation, etc. – vital matters of public concern. The difference is what is relevant to members of the public, as opposed to what might merely entertain, fascinate or titillate some of them.2
Sometimes it is difficult to determine if something is in the Public Interest, especially where privacy is concerned. Sometimes a journalist may have to resort to subterfuge to expose wrongdoing. Such acts of deception are normally to be avoided, but if it is necessary to deliver justice it may be justified in the wider public interest. When determining public interest, it is necessary for us to consider two things, Privacy and Impact.
The Privacy Test
Privacy is the critical test of ethical journalism and the public interest. Journalists should not intrude into the private lives of ordinary people, after all most people do not live in the glare of public life.
But people who are public figures – politicians, or corporate leaders, or people who exploit and rely on their public image for their livelihood, or who carry a public responsibility such as police officers, teachers and doctors – are sometimes people whose private affairs may have an important impact on their public duties.
Media intrusion, ethically justified by reasons of the public interest, exposes hypocrisy and dishonesty. Whenever it is used, it must be justified. The reasons for the intrusion must be clearly explained to the public and it must be linked to the wider public interest.
Some countries build “the public interest” into their legal systems. For example, a number of countries protect “whistleblowers” who speak out about wrongdoing in their place of work. It is important, therefore, to examine the legal conditions in which information is given and whether or not it has legal protection when it is revealed in the public interest.
The Impact Test
One important way of testing whether there is a public interest in journalistic work is to evaluate what the impact of publication will be. How will publication affect the people – who will suffer and who will benefit? Does wider society benefit from publication?
This is a difficult and delicate judgment, and each case must be judged carefully. At stake is not just the potential victims of poor reporting, but the reputation of journalists and the media organization may well suffer if publication is perceived as not acting in the public interest.
Making a decision
If you decide to pursue and publish a story, it should be because the story would do one of the following:
Correct a significant wrong.
Bring to light information affecting public well-being and safety.
Improve the public’s understanding of, and participation in, the debate about an important issue relevant to our society.
Lead to greater accountability and transparency in public life.
The decision on the question of public interest is up to you, the independent journalist. Your decision may not always be the right one, but any time controversy is possible, it is always wise for you to seriously reflection on the issues and possible consequences.
Information for this section was sourced from the following:
Editorial purposes refer to the use of assets or rights for factual, informative, or newsworthy purposes. This includes the description or depiction of newsworthy events and their dissemination to media outlets and media sources, such as independent reporters, columnists, and journalists who reach audiences via blogs and other forms of new media. It expressly excludes any commercial or non-editorial uses such as advertising, sales, promotion (other than a media outlet’s self-promotional use that depicts a use made for Editorial Purposes), marketing, merchandising, or the sale or licensing of images to third parties for any non-editorial or commercial use. In respect of the use of images, usage for or in connection with certain classes of products or services will not constitute Editorial Purposes and would require separate prior written approval from copyright owners.1