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Balancing of First Amendment, Privacy Rights Debated

October 28, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Journalists should do a better job of balancing privacy and First Amendment rights, says a woman who accused the media of badgering her family after her daughter was murdered.

However, reporters and editors who participated in the same free speech seminar said most journalists are sensitive about how their story might affect the private lives of people they write about.

Reporters and editors in the past tended to ″go with it and worry about the consequences tomorrow,″ said Bob McCord, senior editor at the Arkansas Gazette. ″It doesn’t seem to be like that anymore.″

About 60 journalists, media lawyers and others attended Friday’s seminar sponsored by the First Amendment Congress, an umbrella organization for 16 national media and communications groups. The organization tries to educate the public about First Amendment issues.

Patsy Day, who founded a victims’ support group after her 14-year-old daughter was murdered in 1985, criticized the media for publishing her address and camping outside her home with television crews.

She said she was badgered by a reporter who wanted to film her daughter’s bedroom and the media questioned whether she and her husband had violated child labor laws by letting her daughter work in the donut shop where she was abducted.

″One of the big gripes I have with the press is that they apply the same standards to (crime) victims as to public officials who are derelict in their duties,″ Mrs. Day said.

The journalists said there were no clear guidelines for deciding when privacy concerns outweighed the need to have a fact in the story.

″For years and years, that collision of privacy needs and the need to know has been occurring on every level and it comes down to a judgment call,″ said Paul McMasters, deputy editorial director of USA Today.

McMasters said reporters have to be careful not to have a nonchalant attitude about privacy rights.

Steven McGonigle, a reporter for The Dallas Morning News, said he seeks colleagues’ opinions when he has qualms about invading someone’s privacy.

″It’s foolish and arrogant of us to make decisions that affect people’s lives in a vacuum, and hopefully, most of us don’t,″ McGonigle said.

The group also discussed hurdles reporters face in trying to gain access to government documents and potential changes to Freedom of Information laws that are supposed to guarantee the public’s access to information.

For instance, Arkansas’ open meetings and records law was recently changed to seal certain corporate tax documents and another effort at a ″crippling amendment″ is under way, McCord said.

″Powerful politicians are still out there and they’re still our enemy,″ he said.


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