Undercover reporters: Everyone, everywhere

Earlier this month a New York University student went “undercover” into her own journalism classroom to report on the class for Mediashift, a blog published by the US public television network PBS. She didn’t tell the professor or fellow students what she was up to, or ask their permission. In her report, student Alana Taylor expressed frustration with the class and with the university. The headline summed up her critique: Old Thinking Permeates Major Journalism School.

After the article was published, the professor instructed Taylor to refrain from live blogging or using Twitter during class. Sacre coeur! Censorship in a journalism classroom.

The PBS blog’s editor, longtime digital media watcher Mark Glaser, followed up on the student’s original post with a 2,300-word report on the rights, responsibilities and legal obligations of the university, the student reporter and the professor.

But the exercise failed to place the skirmish in context. It missed the bigger story, the shift, the trend that makes the conversation worth noting here.

Trend: Borderless culture. Boundaries between public and private and expectations of privacy are under stress as technology reshapes our ability to report and share information from anywhere with everyone.

We think of borders in terms of geography and note how information in the connected culture ignores national boundaries. Indeed, nations that seek to control information within and beyond their geographic borders now invest in technology to create digital borders, such as China’s Great Firewall.

But information also ignores cultural boundaries – those formed by traditions and expectations of human behavior. These expectations may be formal and expressed in laws, contracts and rules; they may be defined and managed by computer software that gives parents, corporations or governments control over what kinds of web sites their computers can access; or our expectations may be informal and expressed with guidelines, gentle requests – or not at all. I expect people to be polite, but I don’t say so every time I meet a stranger, nor do I carry a document around that defines what I mean by polite. Rebecca Solnit writes in the October 2008 issue of Harper’s magazine that in Iceland it is considered impolite for anyone to run and campaign against a sitting president. So nobody runs.

Just as recordings of private conversations with campaign donors can make their way online, so can reports and analysis of other meetings that may seem private to some participants but public or “fair game” to others.

Universities are on the front lines of this shift, but they are themselves part of a wider story. Just as we can all rate and evaluate products, hotels, political candidates and local doctors and service providers, university students can review and rate their professors at RateMyProfessor.com, or upload and compare study notes, old tests and grading histories at Koofers. A critical blog post is part of that expansion of online information sharing about everything.

In his follow-up report, Glaser focused on laws, policies and journalism schools, and he closed with a set of questions: Should journalism schools restrict live-blogging or Twittering in class as distractions or use them as teaching tools? Should students be required to get permission before writing about what goes on in their classrooms?

That’s all well and good and no doubt a practical discussion for journalism schools and other institutions. But I’ve got some different questions:

– What are your common expectations of privacy – at work, at home, at school, when you’re out with friends or alone on the street? Lawyers and legal scholars debate a right to privacy. I’m curious about how technology is messing with our common expectations, regardless of the law. If you talk loudly in a coffee shop and the person next to you reports what you said on their blog, have they violated your common-sense expectation of privacy – or did you violate theirs by speaking too loudly?

– Is technology enabling a more open and transparent culture – one in which we know more and can make better decisions? Or do we now also have to be wary of everyone and hyper-vigilant against our own information leeks, always on guard and protective of what we say?

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