CINCINNATI — The public’s right to know versus the individual’s right to privacy is debated a lot.
There is no shortage of opinion about this, whether you are someone who devours news coverage, someone who occasionally skims the headlines or a seasoned journalist.
People often disagree over where to draw the line. We all know what we’d like to keep private about ourselves. We also know the questions we want answered when a news story grabs our attention.
I want to explain WCPO 9 News’ decision-making process about a story this week.
Our newsroom leaders discussed the case of Miami University students accused of not only violating the city of Oxford’s ordinance against mass gatherings but having COVID-19 as people partied at their house. One student who was questioned by police admitted to the officer that he had been diagnosed with COVID-19 days before, a fact the officer confirmed by checking a database.
That student also said everyone else who lived at the home had the coronavirus, too. Six people were cited for violating the ordinance.
The name of the student who spoke to police, along with the others who were cited, is a matter of public record. The names are on police reports. Police provided body-camera video of the officer’s interaction with the student who said he was infected. All of this was provided to the news media at its request, as required under Ohio public records law.
WCPO 9 News decided not to reveal the identities of the students involved. We blurred faces in the video and did not use names in the story.
Some might argue the public has a right to know about individuals who appear to be recklessly running the risk of spreading the coronavirus throughout their community. With more than 1,000 active cases of COVID-19 on the Miami University campus, that kind of behavior raises real questions about the wisdom of having any in-person classes at Miami University. Can students be trusted to behave responsibly? Perhaps knowing that kind of behavior will be called out in the public square would give them another reason to think twice.
But the penalty needs to fit the crime. The offense is a citation — a ticket. It's not a felony, even if the potential $500 fine is stiff. Presumably, those six men would have been cited even if they didn’t have the coronavirus, so having the virus has no bearing on the offense.
Without the extraordinary aspect of the students having the virus, would this story have garnered so much attention? Probably not.
Although the one student was confirmed to have COVID-19, there was no independent confirmation about the other five. By reporting the students’ names, we might be inaccurately saying they have COVID-19.
That leads us to the question of revealing personal health information. Many people feel health information should be kept private.
The fact that police revealed the diagnosis at all is a bit surprising, given HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. First responders will often cite that as a reason for not telling a reporter about someone’s medical condition. However, given the nature of how everything unfolded, that was probably next to impossible to withhold.
Often, the journalist’s job is not just to report the facts but also to balance the impact of their reporting among all the stakeholders in a story.
In this case, WCPO 9 News chose to report what happened while trying to respect the privacy rights of the accused.
This incident isn’t over for the students. They still must go to court, and Miami University has not announced what disciplinary action, if any, it will take. And, they will have to live with the knowledge that their behavior endangered others.
Ted Wilson is the PM News Content Manager at WCPO 9 News. He oversees WCPO 9 News' 7 pm and 11 pm newscasts and evening news coverage.