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Cellphone use on airplanes

by on November 25, 2013

You’re a journalist. You’re on a an airplane sitting next to a top government official. Her laptop is wide open revealing some pretty newsworthy email exchanges with another official– well, you can’t but help to have glanced over and seen.

We’ve discussed the ethical dilemma of whether or not to use information that is gathered on a flight by what some may call “sneaking a peak.” But quite soon, the possibility of overhearing some newsworthy material may be a new twist on this case.

The New York Times reported last week that the Federal Communications Commission may change its policy regarding Wi-Fia and cellphone use on airplanes. This means that an accidental glance could turn into something more unavoidable: overhearing a conversation whether you’re interested or not.

“The F.C.C. proposal would permit calls and data connections, which would allow people to surf the web on their smartphones and other devices. Airlines and a number of companies … have spent millions of dollars outfitting planes with Wi-Fi connections, and that business could suffer with the allowance of cellphone traffic” (NYT).

The root of this dilemma remains the same: to use or not to use what information you have gathered via the confined space of an airplane. But would your options for action remain the same? The ones we discussed in class include: using the information on background for a story and not approaching the subject right then and there; approach the subject, tell her you’re a journalist and proceed to interview/ inquire about the information; do nothing and treat the information as off-the-record.

What would you do if a top government official was making a rather noisy, newsworthy call in the seat next to you? Take it or leave it, and how/why?



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  1. 100% take it. You’re a governmental official on a PUBLIC airplane and you don’t think a “sensitive” phone call should perhaps take place in the restroom or wait until you’ve landing? I think it is totally within the right of the journalists to use that information overheard in a story. I wouldn’t rely solely on that information but I would use it in a story. An email overseen on a computer screen is a little more trickier but the same idea applies.

  2. mritz21 permalink

    I think there’s a difference between glancing at someone’s laptop and using the information you’ve sort of “snooped” to gather and overhearing someone’s loud and boisterous telephone conversation which reveals important information. I don’t think you can use what you’ve heard from a one-sided phone conversation as fact, but it could help fuel a topic to be covered and would be the beginning stages of searching for the validity of that conversation.

    Malea Ritz

  3. If the government official is foolish enough to make an important phone call while on an airplane, which is filled with a number of people — and you never know who they could be — in a tight space, then it’s fair game. If I were the journalist, I probably wouldn’t use the phone call as my only source, but it’s certainly a starting point. Once you have digested everything you just heard, it certainly can’t hurt to strike up a conversation at some point in the trip. With that being said, you better do much more investigating to make sure that you aren’t using one side of a phone conversation or important email as your only source of information.

    — Nick

  4. I would definitely take it. Its one thing to see something on a screen because that is a bit more private but if they are making a phone and clearly saying things a loud then use it. They are making inevitable to listen into their conversation and if they are not making the effort to keep it private then why should the journalist? Might as well take advantage and take the information that can help develop a story.

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