Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Privacy Across the Globe

By Alexandria Seay

After studying American journalism for four years, it was quite easy to get wrapped up in the culture of the Missouri School of Journalism and to seemingly forget that media can be different in other parts of the world.  The Europe Tour provided thought-provoking presentations that illustrated the various ways the government plays a role in journalism and advertising overseas.  The presentation I found to be most interesting was that of Peter Gumbel, the Director of Communications for Sciences Po. He showed an intriguing multimedia presentation that highlighted differences between French and American privacy laws and their portrayal in the media.  What I once considered to be social norms were not so normal in France.  

Many of the topics covered in the lecture stemmed from the French Civil Code.  Article 9 of the French Civil Code states “everyone has the right to respect for his or her private life” and goes on to define one’s private life as including “his or her love life, friendships, family circumstances, leisure activities, political opinions, trade union or religious affiliation and state of health.”  These French privacy lawss are enforced regardless of whether a person is a public figure or private individual.  As one can gather from this section of Article 9, French privacy laws have a few substantial differences from American privacy laws.  In many cases, the French privacy laws are stricter than those of Americans.

In America, the notion of newsworthiness is a large factor for journalists.  We believe we have a responsibility to inform the people.  Therefore, with this responsibility we often see the exposing of public figures in American media.  However, based on France’s stance on this matter, it is apparent that the idea of newsworthiness prevailing is not a universal truth. Gumbel spoke of the respect for citizen’s private lives, an idea highlighted in the Civil Code.  He gave an example of a public figure running for governmental office, claiming to be a devout Catholic, but having an affair.  There was knowledge of his infidelity amongst journalists, but no one would report on it because this dealt with his private life.  After learning this information, many of the students on the tour had questions.
“Don’t the people have a right to know that the political candidate they are electing is dishonest?”

“As a journalist, doesn’t our responsibility to inform the people prevail over any allegiance to a public figure’s privacy?”

The aforementioned questions were posed numerous times by the group because students were unable to understand how a journalist would not report on such news.  If we were in the newsroom, this would not only be news, but possibly breaking news.  However, for the French this was an invasion of privacy and a violation of privacy law. This dealt with the candidate’s private life and was not to be broadcast through media outlets.

Another interesting difference between French and American privacy laws deals with the media coverage of suspects wearing handcuffs.  It is common for American suspects to be pictured in stories with handcuffs, making the “walk of shame.” I can vividly recall numerous suspects, both public figures and private individuals being pictured in the media wearing handcuffs. Conversely, in France, such exposure is illegal and can result in up to $21,300 in fines.  Such images are believed to make the suspect appear to be guilty. In some French cases, the media was penalized for showing an image that looked as if the suspect is handcuffed, even if the handcuffs were not visible. This was another personal topic of interest.  I had never considered that such a trivial matter for Americans could cause such a stir abroad.

Video: Fine levied on France24 for spreading rumors about a Carla Bruni affair.
In America, it is very rare for the name of a rape or sexual assault victim to be published.  In Communication Law, we had a few lessons dedicated to this touchy subject.   Although it is not illegal to post the name of a rape victim it is nearly unheard of except for extreme cases when there was a dire need for the public to know or the victim had previously announced the sexual occurrence in a public forum. In French media, the names of victims are less of a faux pas and are published more often.  I found this to be quite surprising based on the other strict restrictions on privacy, but something as personal as a victim’s sexual assault could be published without legal consequences.  In my opinion, this violates the Civil Code and would fall under a person’s “love life,” though involuntarily. 

Overall, Gumbel’s lecture caused me to consider the differences between French and American media.  I cannot venture to say whether the privacy of one country is better than the other. As an American, I am very accustomed to our media and way of doing things.  I have grown attached to many celebrities and public figures through the media.  For example, through American media outlets I followed Beyonce’s pregnancy, from stories about the alleged purchase of pink baby Christian Louboutin’s by a close family member leading people to believe the baby was a girl, to up-to-date stories of the birth of Blue Ivy Carter.  Based on the French privacy laws, this would be illegal.  On the other hand, as a very private person, I can appreciate a society with less glorification of celebrities and public figures and where personal matters are not on the front pages of newspapers and websites.
As a student aspiring to someday work overseas, this tour, and more specifically, this lecture, led me to start thinking about not only cultural differences, but how our laws and common practices may differ also. 

This tour was very beneficial in providing the foundation and sparking an interest to conduct my own personal research on foreign affairs and media laws.  Having a grasp on such a complex, multi-faceted subject would make me a well-rounded candidate when searching for employment and contribute to my goal of becoming a great Public Relations Specialist.

Click here to contact Alexandria Seay.

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