« Minnesota Journalism Center Update | Main | INMS Update: Reaching Around the Globe »

Silha Center Update

By Elaine Hargrove and Penelope Sheets

The Silha Center's two Spring Forums examine media objectivity and e-mail privacy

Mary HorvathOn March 28, the Silha Center's first Spring Forum of 2006 took on the topic of e-mail privacy and surveillance. "Your E-mail Is Not Yours! Government Surveillance and Digital Privacy," raised audience awareness of how vulnerable electronic communications can be, both online and off. Speakers included Dick Reeve, deputy district attorney for computer crimes in the Denver District Attorney's office; Mary Horvath, a computer forensic examiner for the FBI; and Stephen Cribari, professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and a former federal public defender.

Cribari explained that the terms "anonymity," "intimacy" and "privacy" are not interchangeable, and that expectations of privacy in computers were not addressed in a Constitution drafted 200 years before the development of today's technology. Reeve explained that because e-mail is routed through servers worldwide before reaching its destination, it is unrealistic to have an expectation of privacy in its contents. Horvath's presentation focused on the technology law enforcement uses to examine computer communications and hard drives. She cautioned the approximately 50 attendees to "either be very careful, or don't do anything wrong."

Seth MnookinThe shifting concept of news media objectivity was the focus of the Silha Center's second Spring Forum, held on May 1. Author Seth Mnookin, author of Hard News: Twenty-One Brutal Months at The New York Times and How They Changed the American Media, gave the Forum's keynote lecture, entitled "The Customer is Always Right? The Assault on Media Impartiality from the Empowered American Consumer." According to Mnookin, the idea that the news media's role is one of "communicating an unvarnished truth" is under siege following the decline in family ownership of newspapers. Most U.S. newspapers are now controlled by multinational, publicly-owned corporations, and these businesses are necessarily accountable to their stockholders, which has changed the power dynamic at news organizations.

Instead of editors and publishers making decisions based on the ideal of "putting out the single best, unbiased newspaper" they can, they now must bow to increasing demands for news that confirms readers' worldviews. "It is time for readers to take a step back and ask 'Does this article offend me because it's not telling me the truth? Or does it offend me because it's telling me something I didn't know before?'" Mnookin said. Kate Parry, reader's representative at the Minneapolis Star Tribune also spoke, describing her role in responding to readers' concerns in the age of easy and rapid email communication. Jane Kirtley, Silha Professor and Director of the Silha Center, moderated the event.