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Privacy, Whistle-blowing & Citizen Journalism

by on April 10, 2013

I came across this New York Times article a few days ago, which I found interesting and relevant to class for a few reasons. It basically talks about efforts being mounted by animal farmers to prevent animal rights activists from infiltrating their operations and videotaping the conditions in which the animals live and how they are treated.

For me, it touches on at least two of the topics that we’ve discussed in class: going undercover/privacy issues, and the question of citizen journalism and who can be considered a journalist.

According to the article, the videos were “all shot in the last two years by undercover animal rights activists.” This raises a couple questions for me: is it ethical for activists (or professional journalists) to secretly invade the privacy of a firm with the goal of producing expose videos? Is such an invasion justified on the grounds of an overriding public interest, such as with Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle?

For me, “hens caged alongside rotting bird corpses” kind of screams public interest, particularly regarding health and food contamination.

As far as citizen journalism and free press issues go, are these activist videos works of journalism? If so, would you consider these various bills to be violations of the right to a free press? Though I wouldn’t consider the activist’s motives to be very objective nor would I consider them to be members of the press, they are essentially doing work similar to what an investigative journalist would be doing. Who’s to say they won’t try to apply it to journalists as well in the future?

In particular, the part about how “one of the group’s model bills, “The Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act,” prohibits filming or taking pictures on livestock farms to “defame the facility or its owner”’ and calls for violators being placed on a “terrorist registry” is slightly disturbing. Is whistle-blowing and investigative reporting now considered terrorism?

Thoughts?

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One Comment
  1. It is sad to me that, as you say, whistle blowing and investigative reporting could become somehow considered terrorism, and in my opinion it steps on our first amendment rights as people and our vital right to freedom of the press as journalists. As you mentioned, some of the most influential pieces of journalism, such as Sinclair’s The Jungle are a result of investigative, undercover reporting. I am all for the right to privacy and am in no way alluding that secret video taping should be allowed everywhere, but when someone is secretly recording severe animal cruelty in an effort to bring light to the issue, they are unquestionably doing a public service.

    I was shocked and horrified by a lot of information in this article and am glad that you shared it. The idea that a bill could be passed that “would require job applicants to disclose material information or face criminal penalties, a provision that opponents say would prevent undercover operatives from obtaining employment” is a scary thought in my opinion. It would blatantly encourage animal neglect and cruelty by letting farmers know that no one is watching them, and silence anyone who tried to shed light on the issue.

    This brings up a lot of ethical concerns for us as journalists. Journalists should be strongly opposing bills like these because they are a form of extremely unnecessary censorship. The public has every right to see where the food they eat is coming from, and as journalists we owe it to the public to do more investigative reporting on this and other topics.

    A big ethical issue I see with the situation in this article is the fact that the videos were recorded by undercover “animal rights activists.” These activists were acting at “citizen journalists” but first and foremost they are activists, making them extremely biased. As a media outlet publishing videos they recorded their obvious bias and inability to have been impartial would be a major concern to me.

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