media ethics class arthur ashe and invasion of privacy


Tennis legend Arthur Ashe was the first black man to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. After his retirement from tennis, Ashe joined the struggle for human rights in the U.S. and emerged as a leading critic of apartheid in South Africa. He wrote a highly regarded three-volume history of black athletes in the United States. By all accounts, he was generous with his time and gracious when dealing with the public.

On April 8, 1992, however, Arthur Ashe was faced with one of the most difficult decisions of his life. Unknown to all but a few, Ashe had contracted HIV, probably from a blood transfusion during a heart bypass operation in 1983. Basketball great Magic Johnson had publicly announced only a year before that he had contracted HIV (probably through multiple heterosexual sexual encounters). At the time, only a small percentage of HIV-positive American men had contracted it from heterosexual sex, and it was initially rumored that Johnson was gay or bisexual, although he denied both. The story received an enormous amount of media attention.

However, Ashe, an intensely private man, had managed to keep his condition a secret from everyone except his family and close friends. Even his own, young daughter didn’t know. All that changed, though, when a reporter from USA Today contacted Ashe in early April of 1992. The reporter, acting on a tip from an anonymous source, called to confirm whether Ashe had AIDS or not. Realizing that his secret would now, very probably, become public knowledge, Ashe was faced with the dilemma of letting the media expose his private life, or taking the initiative and releasing the information himself. He asked USA Today’s sports editor to allow him 36 hours before the paper ran the story so that he could prepare a statement. The editor, Gene Polincinski replied that, “as a journalist, it was not my role to help him plan a press conference—and that it was inappropriate for me to withhold a news story that I could confirm.”

During the subsequent press conference, put together literally on the spur of the moment in order to preempt the USA Today scoop, Ashe displayed both anger and dismay at the actions of the media. He chastised them for forcing him into “the unenviable position of having to lie” in order to protect his family’s privacy, or to go public with what he considered to be private information. In a Washington Post article written by Ashe, he discussed how he felt about the media’s intrusion into his private affairs. “I wasn’t then, and I am not now, comfortable with being sacrificed for the sake of the ‘public’s right to know.’” Although USA Today held the story in the U.S. pending Ashe’s confirmation, it released the story to its overseas edition after a talk with the former tennis star just prior to his press conference in which he admitted to being HIV positive.

After going public, Ashe became active in the fight against AIDS, forming a fundraising foundation and joining the boards of the Harvard AIDS Institute and the UCLA AIDS Institute. He died of pneumonia just ten months after his public announcement. Just four days before he died, he had given a speech on AIDS, and was scheduled to appear at an AIDS forum in Hartord, Connecticut, the day he died. He was forced to cancel at the last minute, but sent a videotaped message in his stead.

QUESTION: USA Today decided not to give Ashe the time he asked for to prepare a response. Assume that’s where you come in. If you had been an ethics advisor to the USA Today editor, what would you have suggested? Use the accompanying worksheet to determine your advice.

IMPORTANT NOTE: This case study takes place in the early 1990s. As such, it is historical in context. That means that, although you will find out from reading what actually transpired, you can only make judgments based on what you would have known at the moment in time at which you enter the scene. You cannot see the future. For example, you cannot know that Arthur Ashe goes on to become an AIDS activist, so you cannot suggest that as a positive reason for running the story. This is called “presentism,” which means writing about the past as if you have knowledge of the future. In order to make this work, you must pretend you actually live in the early 1990s.

DIRECTIONS Your finished paper should be at least 4 pages, double-spaced, or no less than 1200 words.

Remember, grammar and style count. Proofread carefully before submitting your paper.

Submitting your paper: Make sure you submit your file on Canvas by Friday July 5, by 11: 59 pm.

ETHICAL WORKSHEET Directions: Use this to analyze the case study and determine your course of action. Addressing the questions in order is required, so please number your answers. As always, complete sentences, good grammar, and good style count.

1- What is the ethical issue/problem? Be succinct. This should only take one or two sentences.

2- What immediate facts would you have to be aware of in order to make a decision. Include in this list any potential economic, social, or political pressures. For example: The stigma of AIDS during the early 1990s; Ashe’s position as a public figure (or not); the reputation of USA Today, etc.

. Who are the claimants in this issue and in what way are you obligated to each of them? (List all potentially affected by your decision.) Remember, the sports editor is the moral agent in this case. It’s his decision. The obligations you list are his obligations to his moral claimants, not yours as an advisor. NOTE: This part is extremely important. Correctly assessing your claimants and your obligations to them should drive your answers to the rest of the worksheet.

Define your claimants based on the following obligations: • a promise/contract you made (implied or express)? (Fidelity)

  • a wrong you committed that you now have to make up? (Reparation) • gratitude for something one of the claimants did for you? (Gratitude) • the merit of the claimants when compared with each other? (Justice) • your ability to help someone out who needs and deserves help? (Beneficence) • your ability to avoid harming anyone unnecessarily? (Non-injury)

4- Alternative course(s) of action. At the point of your involvement as an ethics consultant, USA Today has already decided to ignore Ashe’s plea for time. However, the editor has asked for your advice. You may either modify USA Today’s decision to make it more ethically responsible (if you feel it is unethical), or suggest a totally new approach that you think is more ethically responsible than theirs. You may suggest, for example, not to publish the story at all. Use the following questions to determine the ethicality of both USA Today’s original approach and your alternative. (NOTE: You just need one alternative and/or an alteration of the current decision not to give Ashe extra time.)

  • What are the best- and worst-case scenarios of using this approach? Be realistic. For example, the possibility of Ashe committing suicide is extremely remote. What else might he do? Remember, you can’t see the future, but you can make reasoned, realistic predictions. • Will anyone be harmed if this approach is chosen, and how will they be harmed? This is especially important when balancing harms against benefits. • Would honoring any ideal/value (personal, professional, religious, or other) invalidate the chosen approach or call it into question? • Are there any rules or principles (legal, professional, organizational, or other) that automatically invalidate this approach? This could include relevant codes of ethics. • Are there any rules or principles (legal, professional, organizational, or other) that support this approach? This could include relevant codes of ethics.

5- Consider the following ethical guidelines and ask yourself whether they either support or reject (1) the original approach and (2) your suggested approach.

Guidelines based on consequences: Weighing benefits and harms • Is the “good” brought about by your action outweighed by the potential harm that might be done to anyone? • Is any of the harm brought about by anyone other than the moral agent (i.e., the subject)? • Will anyone be harmed who could be said to be defenseless? • To what degree is your choice of alternatives based on your own or your organization’s best interests? • Which of the alternatives will generate the greatest benefit (or the least amount of harm) for the greatest number of people? • Is any minority interest being harmed because of a focus on the majority interest? Is that acceptable? (Take a look at Mill’s justice arguments for honoring individual rights.)

Guidelines based on the action itself: Honoring integrity • Is there an issue of autonomy? The editor’s? The claimants? • Are you willing to make your decision a rule or policy that you and others in your situation can follow in similar situations in the future? If you are, state what that rule would be.

  • Does the alternative show a basic respect for the integrity and dignity of those affected by your actions? Have you or will you be using any person as a means to an end without consideration for his/her basic integrity? • Is the intent of this action free from vested interest or ulterior motive? • Does this action promote the development of character within myself and my community?

6- Now, explain to the editor why he should adopt your suggested course of action.

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