LAST MINUTE MUSINGS: The right to privacy in the COVID-19 era

Friday, March 27, 2020

I know the name of the first COVID-19 death in the county.

Several of my co-workers do too.

Iím sure many of you reading this ó if you have an inquiring mind and a Facebook account ó also know who it was.

However, we will not be printing the personís name, at least not unless a member of the victimís family gives us the go-ahead to do so.

Itís just not how we operate.

In this industry, there is a constant push and pull between a publicís right to know and a personís ó especially a victimís ó right to privacy.

If, for example, one of your neighbors was arrested for sexual misconduct with a minor, I feel I have a moral obligation not to do anything to reveal the victimís identity. Thereís a reason we donít allow comments on those stories ó so no one else uses our website as a forum to identify or shame such victims.

On the other hand, it is worth letting you know that the predator was targeting someone in his own family and not picking up random kids on the street.

As reporters, we walk a thin line in those cases.

Iíll admit, an infectious disease is a different beast. But the same general principles apply.

As a member of the public, you feel you need as much information as possible on the positive COVID-19 cases ó age, address, place of work, other associations and, heck, name if you can get it.

On the other hand, those people have the right to choose just how public or private they make their own health battles.

Furthermore, our main source of information in this crisis, the Putnam County Health Department, has the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) to consider. If youíre not familiar with HIPAA, itís a 1996 federal law that ensures the privacy of patients.

As a journalist, HIPAA can be maddening at times. As a citizen, itís a great reassurance.

Workers at the Health Department and healthcare facilities will do everything they can to abide by HIPAA. They will make sure they err on the side of too little information rather than too much. I get it. Thatís just being responsible in their jobs.

At the Banner Graphic, we count on the Health Department to help do our job in these times. Weíre going to listen to what they have to say. Weíre going to ask questions. But weíre not going to push them to the point of jeopardizing the relationship of trust weíve built and continue to build.

We also count on the Health Department to do the work of identifying the patientís family, friends, co-workers and anyone else with whom they may have come in contact.

As contrary as it may be to our instincts, itís one place we journalists are having to leave the dissemination of information to others in these trying times.

As for the easy availability of information on social media? Thatís great. Feel free to use it to educate yourself and console those touched by the disease.

But in this business (and life in general) social media should always be approached with an abundance of caution. Not everything you read on Facebook is real. The last few years have taught us that the hard way.

And so, the only way we will be printing the names of any COVID-19 victim is if A) the Department of Health or some other authority gives it to us; or B) the victim or his or her direct family member tells us.

I can assure you that A will not happen and B will only happen if they reach out to us.

The last thing I intend to do is approach someone who is scared, hurting, ailing, perhaps mourning, and ask them for comment on the situation. Thatís never been how I like to do this job and Iím confident my co-workers feel the same.

Iíve never chased ambulances and I donít plan to start now.

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  • I totally understand the right to privacy to any victim, whether it be physical or health issues. However, if someone has a health issue that will affect someone else's health, then that's where the privacy issue should stop. If someone has allergies, then they should have the right to privacy. If someone has the Covid-19, Flu, etc.. that is contagious, then the right to privacy should have limits. Just like if someone has a issue like AIDS, they can be sued for not letting their partners know that they have the disease. Covid-19 is NO different.

    Just My Opinion.

    -- Posted by tjarboe50 on Fri, Mar 27, 2020, at 6:57 PM
  • Very much appreciate the point of view of this article. I applaud the ongoing work of the Banner during these anxious times.

    -- Posted by Rockypenguin on Fri, Mar 27, 2020, at 11:50 PM
  • It doesnít matter who it was. Do what you are supposed to be doing: washing hands, staying home, minding your own business...

    -- Posted by your mom on Sat, Mar 28, 2020, at 12:30 AM
  • Great great article Jared.

    -- Posted by Nit on Sat, Mar 28, 2020, at 8:17 AM
  • It is the job of the health dept. to contact those that need to know if they maybe at risk. Not the news in any form.

    -- Posted by fourjs on Sat, Mar 28, 2020, at 1:19 PM
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