For most folks, the demise of the blogging website Gawker meant only Terry Gene Bollea won his lawsuit and millions of dollars in a judgement.
Hulk Hogan, Bollea’s stage name, sued the website for $115 million — another $25 million in punitive damages was added later — because of a sex tape Gawker posted on its site. The decision came down on the side of privacy verses free speech.
The judgement was enough to bankrupt and end Gawker’s run. Set up in 2003 as a blogging site, Gawker exemplified much of what we see and read across the internet. The internet offers a certain free rein, wide open and lots of anonymity. There’s very little filter for some folks, particularly when it comes to posting on the internet, including commenting under a fictitious name as some are wont to do.
There wasn’t anything anonymous about Gawker. Its founder and editors were readily identifiable and fairly well known. What Gawker and those who post anonymously fail to take into consideration is what free speech really means.
A.J. Liebling in a 1960 issue of “New Yorker” magazine article titled “The Wayward Press: Do You Belong in Journalism?” said, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”
In that day and time, the “press” largely consisted of newspaper, television station or radio station. What the internet has done is deliver a “press” to anyone who has access to a computer or smartphone.
And while most people like to talk about freedom of the press, journalists who practice their craft usually remember what goes along with that First Amendment right-responsibility.
Jeff Jarvis, professor of journalism at City University of New York, spoke about responsibility in a piece about the lawsuit fallout. The Ohio Newspaper Association shared his comments with its members last week.
Writing to former Gawker Media owner Nick Denton and his editors, Jarvis said, “… freedom of speech does not mean that you have to publish everything you could publish. Freedom of speech also protects the right and necessity to edit responsibly.”
A lot of people talk about the power of the press, and while that power does exist, few people recognize the responsibility that goes along with that power. Anyone that writes, posts or edits content on the internet needs to remember the responsibility. Gawker did not recognize, or at least did not exercise, its responsibility.
Exercise of responsibility is the niche media organizations bring to internet content. It’s not uncommon to hear of rumors circulating through the area. In the news business, we hear rumors all the time. The difference is the internet and social media provide anyone the opportunity to put those rumors out for all to read.
Sometimes rumors turn out to be true. More often than not, they’re just that — rumors. Journalists practice restraint, most of the time, and exercise responsibility to run rumors to the ground before making them public. That’s the value journalists and journalism bring to the internet whether dealing with national or local rumors.