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Silha Center Events Tackle Tough Topics in Media Ethics and Law

silha09s.jpgIn two events sponsored by the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law in spring 2009, guest speakers and panelists from law enforcement, journalism, and the academy addressed difficult and timely questions concerning the interrelations of technology, privacy and law enforcement, as well as health journalism in the midst of an imminent flu pandemic.

by Patrick File and Jacob Parsley

Jeff Hansel, Jeff Baillon, Susan Albright, Jeremy Olson, Dave Hage and Gary SchwitzerThe Silha Spring Forum, titled "Surveillance, Anonymity and Privacy: Law Enforcement and Your Computer," was held March 25 at the Murphy Hall Conference Center.

Stephen Cribari, a criminal and constitutional law professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, discussed how the ever-changing digital landscape has raised questions about constitutional interpretation. "Do we have to adjust the way we live to the Constitution, or do we need to adjust the Constitution to the way that we live our lives in an increasingly technological time?" Cribari asked. He was joined by Dick Reeve, chief deputy, district attorney and general counsel for computer crimes in Denver, Colo., and Mary Horvath, an FBI senior computer forensic examiner from Quantico, Va.

Reeve summarized some ways that law enforcement officials are learning to use digital surveillance, and explained how these trends can be difficult to reconcile with traditional interpretations of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. "Technology is forcing us to give up a lot of privacy, and I don't know what to do about it," Reeve said. "It's being driven by the information age. The job for our present and future legislators and judges is to craft a balance between security and personal privacy."

In contrast, Horvath described the increasing use of technology as a trade-off. "Nobody forced you to use technology," Horvath said. "With those comforts, you have to understand what you choose to give up in exchange."

Horvath retrieves evidence from computers, phones, automobile diagnostic systems and other sources of digital information while conducting federal investigations. She explained that although a computer may not be directly involved in a crime, it can be used to find extensive information on criminal suspects: phone contacts, bank and credit card records, and social contacts.

"When I get your computer, I don't just get your computer-- I get your whole world," Horvath said. "You are not private. If you are using technology, there is no privacy. And by using technology you agree to that. You just don't realize it."

The annual Spring Ethics Forum and Town Hall Meeting, held April 30 in Murphy Hall auditorium, was titled "Fever Pitch: Does Health News Reporting Leave Consumers Out in the Cold?" The event was jointly sponsored by the Silha Center, Society of Professional Journalists and Minnesota News Council.

The event featured a presentation by Gary Schwitzer, associate professor at the SJMC and publisher of HealthNewsReview.org, as well as a panel of five local journalists who cover health: Susan Albright of MinnPost.com, Jeff Baillon of KMSP-TV, Dave Hage of the Star Tribune, Jeff Hansel of the (Rochester) Post-Bulletin and Jeremy Olson of the Pioneer Press.

In his presentation, Schwitzer called health news "the most vital beat in all of journalism" and said the media need to "chill the fever pitch." He praised several of the panelists for their work, including Hansel and Olson, both of whom won Frank Premack Public Affairs Journalism Awards from the Minnesota Journalism Center for stories on health issues, as well as Baillon, a 2008 regional Emmy Award winner.

Schwitzer was critical of the media for "cheerleading" coverage that can overemphasize the importance of medical research and so-called breakthroughs, particularly when the research is conducted in the news organizations' local area.

Schwitzer said there is an "imbalance" in health news reporting. The media focus on "too much stuff"--new drugs, new tests and new machines--and fail to focus on substantive health care problems Americans face. He said audiences are thirsty for a "sip" of quality health news, but the huge amount of reporting that lacks substance is like "drinking from a fire hose."

During the hour-and-a-half panel discussion, the journalists examined a number of challenges that health news reporters face: shrinking newsroom budgets, inconsistent application of federal laws governing the release of patient information, the lack of health issue expertise on newspaper editorial boards, the use of video news releases and direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising.

The panelists also shared their thoughts on media coverage of the H1N1 (swine flu) virus outbreak. Most agreed that coverage by local news outlets had been adequate and not sensational.

Hage viewed the flu outbreak as an opportunity to teach the public about health issues. "It's hard to get the public's attention about science," he said. Albright, of MinnPost.com, said she appreciated the ability of an Internet-based news organization to provide information to its readers along with links to other sources and even more information. Hansel saw his role as getting as much information to the public as possible, so the public can then decide how to respond.

Silha Center events are made possible by a generous endowment from the late Otto Silha and his wife, Helen.