Is it “public interest or just snooping”?
The Toronto Star’s public editor, Kathy English, put forth that question in her Nov. 27 column on weighing the decision to investigate a person who isn’t a public figure. In it, English concluded that last week’s Star article on the daughter of a former Canadian prime minister was more an invasion of privacy than of the public interest.
The debate of public versus private was spurred by a Toronto Star front page story on the daughter of a former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau. However, even though the story was the most-read on the website, was the story in the public interest?
The story’s subject was former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s 19-year-old daughter Sarah Coyne, currently a student at the University of Pennsylvania. Trudeau died ten years ago last month.
And even though Coyne declined to be interviewed more than once for The Star’s article, Star reporter Brett Popplewell took photos of Coyne on campus and “wrote a story based on observing her in public locations.” The article mentioned that Coyne, her mother, Deborah Coyne, and her late father all led private lives.
Readers complained since Coyne clearly expressed no interest in being in “the media spotlight.” The story has no sources and offers no real information, in iMediaEthics’ view. It’s noteworthy that the story’s opening paragraphs call Coyne’s story “untold” and, after reading the article, Coyne’ story still hasn’t been told.
As English explained, public interest usually outweighs privacy, especially for people who choose to be public figures. However, journalism ethics are a little less rigid for family and friends of that public figure.
And, in Ontario, where the Star is based, the public cannot legally keep “journalists from writing about or photographing someone who wishes to avoid public attention,” English reported the Star’s lawyer said.
English wrote that she can’t “provide any objective journalistic insight” on this particular story because she agreed with Sarah’s mother, Deborah Coyne, who complained via a letter ot the editor. Coyne’s mother had written that
“The Toronto Star has every right to ask my daughter if she wishes to adopt a more public posture. In turn, she has every right to expect that when she says no, her answer will be respected with the same degree of dignity and courtesy that she always takes care to demonstrate.”
Because there wasn’t any real new information and Coyne clearly didn’t want the attention, English ultimately wrote that she thinks the Star shouldn’t have run the story. She also noted that a freelancer pitched an article on Coyne a few months ago, but the Star decided against the story.
iMediaEthics wrote to English to confirm our read of the story. “You have interpreted my column accurately. I agree with the editor who rejected a freelancer’s pitch to do this story earlier this year,” English wrote.
English previously touched on the issue of public interest journalism in last month’s column defending a Star undercover report. She explained that the use of undercover reporting was in the public interest as the Star’s nursing home expose reportedly revealed questionable standards and conditions.