Dan Kennedy Talks Gawker & Newsworthiness

Journalists posting stories because they know people will click and read it, but do not consider the ethical dilemma of making certain stories public, is becoming dangerous territory. On October 27, 2016, Dan Kennedy guided a discussion about balancing newsworthiness and ethics, using the Gawker v. Hulk Hogan v. Peter Thiel case as a backdrop.

What is newsworthy means something different for every journalist. For some, ethics does not even come into consideration for what is newsworthy and what gets click is all that matters. Gawker is one of those companies that is infamous for publishing articles with no regards to the ethical concerns of negatively impacting people’s lives, and now primes as an example of why ethics needs to be an important aspect to one’s take on what is newsworthy.

First, it is important to talk about relevant past examples of Gawker media. They did good reporting exposing Rob Ford’s crack habits, Manti Te’o’s fictional dead girlfriend, and Facebook’s manipulation of Trending Topics. However, they also did despicable reporting when they wrote about a one-night stand with Christine O’Donnell, refusal to remove a sex video, and getting someone fired over a rude tweet. So they are overall a mixed bag and most people have a polarizing view on Gawker in general, due to them often reporting with little-to-no care of the ethics involved.

Now to bring it back to Hulk Hogan: Gawker published a sex video of Hulk Hogan and Heather Clem having sex. Hulk Hogan immediately attempts to sue, but Heather Clem does not join in. Gawker tries to fight that he is a public figure so it is newsworthy. It is not the first time a public figure has had a sex tape released on them, and Hulk Hogan has even bragged about his sexual history, so why would this be any different?

Well, it’s good to know Hulk Hogan had a helping hand. Peter Thiel, who had a hurtful article written on him via Gawker has made it a hobby of his to fund any sort of destruction that could make its way to Gawker. So naturally, Thiel heavily funds the defense of Hulk Hogan.

Now, the case itself seemed to boil down to the questions of whether the tape was “highly offensive to a reasonable person” and if it was “legitimate concern to the public.” The class was mostly in agreement that it was both highly offensive and not of legitimate concern, with the arguments on the other side mostly discussing that though it is not a clean story, it will get garner readers, which is often the primary goal of news organizations.

Hulk Hogan wins $140 million, forcing Gawker to become bankrupt. Old news, but still resonated deeply within a crowd of future journalists. Despite few defending the publishing of it, those who spoke up at the end all were dismayed by of the outcome. The amount Hogan won was extremely excessive and unnecessary. Ethics say one should probably not report on a topic so inappropriate, but it does get readers, and therefore giving you a profit.

Is it wrong to publish a story when you have all the material you need? Well, clearly in Hogan’s case it was wrong for Gawker to do so, but to a lesser degree, it can be viewed as ethically wrong to publish Hilary Clinton’s emails. The information was out there for all to publish, but the ethics of whether it was right or not to do so can be questioned. It gets clicks just like the Hogan story, but it negatively impacts Hilary Clinton while feeding into the motivations of whoever leaked them. The ethics would be less questionable if it leaked information on both sides, but to be ethically okay about exposing one side has to be done with almost ignorance  of the possibility that there could be the same thing happening on the other.

The media should not have to worry about getting sued when they report negatively on public figures, but sadly the results of this case add to that fear. No matter what side you are on for the Gawker case, the outcome is unsettling for journalists and hopefully will not seen replicated to such a degree in the future.

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