Journalists are, of course, expected to dig into things. That is an accepted part of the profession. However, there are legal and moral limits regarding how far they should go when doing such digging. The 168 year old British News of the World seems to have exceeded those limits and is being shut down by its owner, Rupert Murdoch.
To be specific, reporters who worked for the News of the World allegedly “hacked” the voice mails of around 4,000 people. What has really outraged the public is that those hacked are not just celebrities, but the families of people who have been killed by terrorists and of British soldiers who died in Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps the most egregious violation is that reporters allegedly hacked the voice mail of a 13 year old girl who had been murdered. The reporters apparently even deleted voice mail messages, giving the family hope that the girl was still alive when it was not known she had been killed.
This situation, obviously enough, raises some serious ethical issues.
As noted above, journalists are expected to dig into things and this aspect of the profession can be seen as potentially justifying intrusions into privacy. The key issue is, of course, how far journalists can go in such intrusions before they are acting unethically.
One factor that can be used to assess the ethics of the intrusions is the nature of the activities being investigated. If the activities are illegal or unethical, then this would seem to justify investigation on the part of reporters, even when doing so might involves means that could be regarded as violating privacy. The moral argument here is, of course, easy and obvious: people generally have no moral or legal right to conceal their misdeeds and hence they would have little grounds to claim that they have been wronged by being exposed. To use an example, if Ted is using slaves on his Florida farm and Sally, who suspects this, sneaks onto his land to gather evidence of this, then Ted certainly has not been wronged. After all, he has no moral right to expect his keeping of slaves to go unexposed and people would seem to have a right to expose such activities.
Of course, there can be cases in which misdeeds are exposed in ways that would seem to involve unethical behavior. For example, if a reporter is snooping around a celebrity and hacks into her computer to steal private photos, then he has acted wrongly-even if his snooping reveals that she has been cheating on her taxes. Though his actions revealed a crime, his intent was not to expose such a misdeed nor did he have any reason to suspect that something illegal or immoral was occurring. As such, the reporter’s intent and justification are clearly relevant.
In the case of the News of the World, the alleged hacking does not seem to fall into the realm of ethical behavior. After all, the intent does not seem to have been to expose misdeeds or crimes. This is especially evident in the alleged hacking of the families of victims and the hacking of the murdered girl’s phone. Presumably, the reporters were looking for things to print that they could not have gotten simply by interviewing the people involved and it seems rather likely that these things were such that the reporters had no right to acquire. After all, the goal seems to have been not the revelation of misdeeds but the creation of sensational headlines and content calculated to appeal to readers. This, however, backfired and instead caused righteous indignation at these alleged violations.
There is also, of course, the fact that the reporters were hacking into voice mails, although using the default PIN hardly counts as serious hacking. While a moral argument could be made for such hacking in cases in which something truly dire was occurring, even in such cases this sort of behavior would be morally questionable (not to mention illegal). However, since the reporters were allegedly hacking for sensational information rather than engaged in exposing wickedness, they have no moral ground on which to stand. Those who directed them to such behavior and concealed their misdeeds over the years also lack such ground. After all, enabling and concealing misdeeds are themselves misdeeds.