Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Some Say Newsworthy, Others Say Privacy

By Jon Rehagen

Obviously living in America differs than living in France. For one, there is a language barrier that many people in the states would try to have you not believe is present. That is wrong. Another is the way in which the French and Americans interact with each other when it concerns the way in which a person is thanked. Adding up all the other obvious cultural differences between the two countries would more than likely result in a hard time for any regular citizen from either country to live in the respectable opposite nation. However upon receiving more knowledge, the information seems to lead me to believe that one of the hardest transitions between the two countries could fall on journalists. I know “not journalist” professionals would simply say that as a journalist I’m paying more attention to this area than others, and that might be true. Why would I say this?

Well, upon attending a lecture at Sciences Po University in Paris I was exposed to an idea that pushed an intriguing button of my mind. The idea simply knocked the foundation of all my journalism education to pieces:  privacy supersedes newsworthiness on a particular subject, sex. Yup… let that sink in. Any normal Joe may simply laugh at my reaction of this, but to all you journalists unaware of French journalistic principles, pick your jaw up off the floor and open your ears. In France the invasion of personal privacy in regarding sex is simply sought as one of the vilest things a journalist could do. Now, I’m not suggesting that in America journalists are told to feast on the private sex lives of its citizens, but I am saying that should something come up that may be considered a public concern journalists in the United States are encouraged to let that story take them as far as it can. 

Now just to clear the record, many of you reading this may say “privacy is a virtue that I fully support,” and that’s great. I even share that view.

No, I’m saying that consider this example in America.

Say Presidential Candidate A (PCA) is discovered to have gone on camera proclaiming that he/she were devoutly religious and that family is the most important aspect of life, only to discover that PCA in fact loved families so much he/she decided to have 3 of them all over Washington D.C. I don’t believe anybody could fathom what the media in America would do to PCA. By the end the week following the story's breaking, I would imagine that parakeets in Aunt Mable’s basement in the far depths of New Mexico would be chattering off “phony! Phony! Phony!"

Ok, imagine a similar situation takes place in France. French PCA may not even be exposed! That seems strange to us as Americans who hold political figures under this magnifying glass. In France though, it’s almost as if the magnifying glass is out and looking at the situation, but then is taken and smashed on the desk until all that’s left is two messes. That’s because French media stays out of issues concerning the personal, and possible sex lives of political figures. Now the French don’t just shy away from personal life issues, in fact, anything concerning financial dealings or unlawful behavior is written about and published just as it would be in America. However where it begins to stray is when something in those stories were to lead to sexual issues. At that point it would be safe to say that media frenzy in America would blow its top. In France, journalists would simply be stopped in their tracks, almost as if they had just ran into an invisible wall. A blogger named Matt Fraser wrote a piece that I’ve really grown fond of. He writes in "No Sex Please, We're French: Power and Privacy in the Fifth Republic" of these very same ideas that I’ve just discussed. He even provides in depth stories linked to one time presidential candidate Dominique Strauss-Kahn. But in this piece he gives his opinions on his observations when he was abroad.

I found it particularly interesting the way my lecturer at Sciences Po University, Peter Gumbel, put it. He said it’s the strangest thing; it’s like a cover up that everyone knows and simply doesn’t uncover. He mentioned a particularly rare incident that had a presidential candidate’s “dirty laundry” published in a story. The story took off in France. Nothing incriminating as far as unlawfulness is concerned, but definitely critical to court of public opinion, as the story pertained to the candidate’s sex life. The result? A strong portion of the viewership was upset with the media outlet because it published it! In fact the author of the piece was fired, and now works at Sciences Po University.

So after this little tid-bit of French privacy principles, the question begs to be asked, are journalists being culturally censored in some sense and could that kind of censorship (should it be dubbed that by you the reader) keep you from being a journalist in France? My answer, yes. As a student of journalism in a democracy similar to France, I’ve learned it is the press/journalist’s duty to provide a watchdog effect on the political realm and regardless of what it is. I feel as though journalists must hold them accountable and with policies like that in place, it seems to me that it would eventually cripple my ability to be a journalist. It almost would make me feel like a public relations officer because I would have this thought of “well, can’t write that, it’s incriminating, but I can’t because it’s not considered right.” So it seems to me that if some American journalists were to move to France, they would mostly likely be selling sandwiches at lunch stands or making crepes at night in no time, because the transition may just be too tough, because to me newsworthy trumps privacy.

Peter Gumbel and me following his lecture at Sciences Po University.
Click here to contact Jon Rehagen.

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