And that presents an epic dilemma for the news media, said editors and publishers in a series of interviews this week. Some are already preparing for a rash of photo leaks, trying to discern standards for what’s publishable. Others are reviewing the details of Hill’s case for lessons they can apply in the future.
The saga began when more than 700 images, pictures, and texts of Hill’s “escapades” were sent to a California-based conservative radio host, Jim Messina, who revealed receiving them on Oct. 17. Messina didn’t publish or share the images, though, telling the Los Angeles Times they were “all over the place.” The next day, the conservative website RedState published several images, including a nude photo of Hill allegedly engaged in a threesome with her husband and a woman on her campaign staff, thus kick-starting a scandal that led to the 32-year-old Democrat’s resignation nine days later.
News executives and editors have long faced tough decisions when it comes to weighing privacy concerns against the need to reveal information in the public’s interest. That challenge is amplified by the ubiquity of cellphone images and the potential for former romantic partners and ex-friends — or anyone with a political ax to grind — to distribute them in an attempt to humiliate or discredit.
“Privacy is one place where journalists need to be really thoughtful about how societal norms are changing, and the norms are becoming more restrictive than the law,” BuzzFeed News Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith told POLITICO, while acknowledging that “everyone has embarrassing stuff on their phones.”
BuzzFeed News editors have addressed this phenomenon in the site’s ethics guide, noting that “the ubiquity of recording, the vast quantity of speech on social media, the power of search has changed how regular people think about the principles of free speech.”
“We believe deeply in those principles and in our right to report public information,” they wrote. “But we also believe journalists must adjust to changing norms, and focus on defending and defining the right to reveal the secrets that matter.”
Daily Beast Editor-in-Chief Noah Shachtman likened the current challenge to newsrooms grappling in recent years with the distribution of hacked materials and deciding what meets the bar for publication.
“Just because a photo is embarrassing doesn’t mean it’s newsworthy,” Shachtman said. However, he added, “if the photo points out something newsworthy — a breach of power, some kind of criminal activity, some kind of hypocrisy — then I think they’re fair game.”
For instance, he said, the recent publication of photos of a young Justin Trudeau in black and brownface “were totally inbounds” because they revealed hypocrisy as the Canadian Prime Minister has “claimed to be progressive on issues of identity,” but “was shown to be totally regressive.” (Trudeau apologized for his past behavior).
Most mainstream news organizations, including POLITICO, did not publish the nude photos of Hill. At The New York Times, said standards editor Phil Corbett, “there was no discussion or consideration of using” the images and the paper didn’t link to posts with them.
Corbett said the Times doesn’t have formal guidelines, but takes “a pretty conservative approach to any kind of salacious or offensive material or imagery, and we have general rules against needless violations of people’s personal lives and privacy.” He said he couldn’t “imagine there would be many — if any — occasions where we would seriously consider publishing anything like that.”
But RedState, a conservative site owned by Salem Media Group, a company aimed at “audiences interested in Christian and family-themed content and conservative values,” did publish intimate photos involving Hill on Oct. 18.
Jennifer Van Laar, the deputy managing editor of RedState, justified running the images of Hill because of her position in Congress. Hill, who is openly bisexual, later admitted to having an “inappropriate” relationship with the female former campaign staffer in the photos, while denying allegations of a relationship with a male congressional staffer, the latter of which would be a violation of House ethics rules.
In her final speech Thursday on the House floor, Hill said she’s didn’t want to be “peddled by papers and blogs and websites, used by shameless operatives for the dirtiest gutter politics that I’ve ever seen.”
Earlier in the week, Hill accused the right-wing media and Republican opponents of a “coordinated campaign” to give a platform to her “abusive” husband of whom she’s in the midst of an acrimonious divorce.
Hill’s husband, Kenneth Heslep, in September offered to tell a local podcast host “the whole story” about the pair’s split, according to the L.A. Times. Messina and Van Laar have been involved in Republican politics, both having previously worked for Hill’s 2018 challenger, Steve Knight.
Lawfare’s Quinta Jurecic called the publication of photos by RedState — and additional ones later in the Daily Mail, in a piece co-bylined by Van Laar — an “ugly line” to have crossed and “a concerning harbinger of what might be to come in the lead-up to 2020.” Vox’s Anna North expressed concerns that women could now be discouraged ”from seeking careers in the public eye.”
Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, warned that “every newsroom should be having discussions in advance about how they will handle all kinds of issues involving personal privacy and leaked information. This certainly isn’t the last time we’re going to see this kind of question.”
“Everyone needs to keep in mind that journalism in the public interest does not simply mean journalism that’s interesting to the public,” Culver added. “I also should note that digital technologies mean journalism ethics isn’t just for journalists anymore. We all should be talking about things like truth-telling and minimizing harm now that tech gives us all the power to be publishers. “
Los Angeles Times editorial writer Jon Healy acknowledged that “the fear of the congressional selfie apocalypse to come may be warranted” in light of Hill’s resignation, though suggested a way to avoid such future scandals: “Never take photos.”
Of course, the images may have been taken long before someone considered a career in politics. Fairbanks, Castro’s creative director, expanded on her tweet on Thursday in a Guardian piece in which she said a man filmed her while drunk and without her consent when she was 19.
“It is not enough to tell women in their 20s and 30s that they just shouldn’t send nudes,” Fairbanks wrote. “A great number of us already have. We shouldn’t have to feel shame that we trusted someone, that we wanted to feel closer to them. Or that we weren’t given a choice.”
It seems inevitable that a generation of future elected officials will have documented their lives in photos and videos that could potentially be used against them down the line. And zip files holding images of an up-and-coming congressman may wind up in journalists’ inboxes, prompting newsroom discussions about what is truly revelatory and what’s simply salacious.
“It’s a grow-the-fuck-up moment,” offered Shachtman. “Everybody’s got some embarrassing photos in their past. Publishing photos that are merely embarrassing, and not newsworthy, doesn’t make you a journalist. It makes you a Peeping Tom.”