A little while ago I wrote about how, if you have cell phone conversations in public, you have a very diminished expectation of privacy:
I was at a tire place this morning. In the waiting room was a woman talking on the phone. She talked about all of the gossip going on around her (maybe the local) LDS church. She was actually quite witty and I cracked a smile at some of the things she said. This got a Look Of Death from her for listening in to her conversation.
Turns out that this made the news:
While on a train Thursday, Bob Salladay, a senior editor at California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting, realized he was sitting near Santa Ana City Council member Michele Martinez. He listened to her talk on the phone and then started tweeting what she said about her campaign. He also tweeted that he was “99 percent sure it was Michele Martinez.”
It turns out, it was. In an email statement, Martinez responded: “I don’t know what’s worse; someone secretly listening to a private conversation without consent or misrepresenting that conversation publicly. It’s disrespectful, dishonest and downright creepy.” Salladay tweeted in response: “There is nothing secret about an elected official talking loudly on a public train.”
Quite so. There are some questions about whether Salladay should have taken some extra steps to verify who was talking. But other than that, I think he’s in the clear. Doug Mataconis comments:
Of course, all of this raises the question of why Martinez (who has not denied that it was her on the train or that Salladay reported what she said accurately) would have a conversation like this is in public to begin with. We’ve all been in some public area where people talk on their cell phone far louder than they need to, forcing at least one side of their conversation upon us whether we want to hear it or not, and I’ve personally been surprised at the number of times you can hear people talking about things out loud that one would think they wouldn’t want anyone else to know about. Martinez’s outrage here would sound a little more sincere if it weren’t for the fact that she was dumb enough to talk about this on a train where anyone around her could here what she’s saying. The fact that one of those people happened to be a reporter is really just her bad luck.
Quite so. As I said in my post, there is no expectation of privacy if you are talking in a public area to where other people can hear you. It was Salladay’s good luck that it was a conversation that he wanted to hear, but more often than not it’s more along the lines of LDS gossip that I listened to.
Doug goes on:
What if the conversation that Salladay had overheard hadn’t had anything to do with the campaign, though? What if it was some kind of personal conversation that revealed, or appeared to reveal, something embarrassing of a personal nature? Would it have been appropriate, from a journalistic standpoint, for him to “live tweet” the conversation in that case? Admittedly, it becomes a more difficult question at that point, and it’s hard to make the case that the private life of a state representative is really all that newsworthy unless it involves something illegal. The fact that Martinez might have been having a fight with her husband, for example, doesn’t strike me as something the public needs to know. At the same time, thought, it’s a tough line to draw and it’s hardly an invasion of privacy if someone is speaking so loudly in public that everyone around them can hear clearly.
This, to me, is a broader question of journalistic ethics that is unrelated to how the information was obtained. If it’s not right to report it because a staffer says so, it’s not right to report it because you overheard it on a train. The same standard applies in both cases. I have no idea why overhearing something would be less valid than talking to a staffer who overheard something.