02 September 2008

The Private Lives of the Candidates and Their Families

Are political figures in the United States entitled to any privacy? Do news organizations overstep the bounds of propriety when they expose what might be considered a politician’s private family matters? Do such matters have any public relevance?

These questions come to mind in light of the case of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin who was unexpectedly picked to be the Republican Party’s Vice-Presidential candidate in the coming national elections.

In the face of growing media interest, Palin and her husband, Todd, revealed in a statement that their 17-year-old daughter Bristol is about five months pregnant and will keep the child. The Palins said that Bristol plans to marry the child's father.

Is this news worthy of presenting to the American public --- and for that matter to international audiences? Most major American news organizations think so and so does VOA.

Here’s why. VOA has an obligation to explain not just what is in the news, but also why certain information is considered newsworthy. Sometimes that means explaining why a particular story or development is news in the United States --- even when the topic might be considered off-limits or simply not newsworthy in other countries and cultures.

One of VOA’s stories on the Republican National Convention said the revelation about Gov. Palin’s daughter overshadowed the proceedings.

Unfortunately it did not explain why or how.

But another hinted at the relevance by noting teen pregnancy appeared at odds with the Alaska Governor’s views on sex before marriage:

“…Palin…has been lauded by fellow social conservatives for…her support of abstinence-until-marriage sex education.”

The same item also addressed the question of whether Governor Palin might have concealed this information from Republican Presidential contender John McCain, another relevant question considering how little is known outside Alaska about her.

“Senior officials from the campaign of Republican Presidential Candidate John McCain say he and his top aides were aware of Bristol's pregnancy before selecting Palin as his running mate.”

The article also sought to downplay the importance of the disclosure politically by noting the reaction of Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama:

"Obama urged reporters to back away from the story. Obama said people's families, and especially their children, are off limits.”

And it noted: “The Palins have asked the media to respect the young couple's privacy.”

Despite this, American news organizations are interested. The New York Times, for example, has several stories today that mention Governor Palin’s pregnant daughter --- three of them on the front page, a clear sign of the importance the publication attaches to the disclosure.

Whether or not it proves to be a political problem for the Republicans and their Vice Presidential candidate remains to be seen. However reporters have a responsibility to assess the potential political impact by asking analysts and voters for their views. VOA should be presenting such evaluations to audiences --- so they can fully understand the multiple phenomena that might be at play in the minds of Americans before they head to the ballot boxes.

We could also provide a report explaining how the question of politician privacy has evolved over time --- from the period when reporters might conceal a political figure’s health problems to a time when they would expose a candidate’s infidelity or reveal a politician’s daughter is gay.

There is in addition a broader social issue that is worth addressing and that is the rate of teen pregnancy in the United States and how it compares to other countries. One VOA item mentions the situation in the U.S. but fails to present comparative foreign figures:

“A U.S. organization on teen pregnancy, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, said in a statement Monday that U. S teen birth rates are on the rise for the first time in 15 years and that, at present, 3 in 10 girls in the United States become pregnant by age 20.”

One footnote: in preparing this, because it dealt with politics and morality questions, we looked into the case of John Edwards, a former Senator and unsuccessful contender for the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination this year. Edwards admitted last month that he had an extra-marital affair in 2006.

The story was originally reported by a U.S. tabloid known for its sensationalism but shunned by mainstream news organizations. Only after the former Senator’s public confession did it receive extensive coverage. Although VOA’s Central Newsroom prepared a report on this, we discovered it was not posted on VOANews.com.

It was an unfortunate oversight. When we inquired, we were told staff shortages were to blame. Sorry.

We’d like to hear from you on the topic of candidates, their families and privacy. How are such matters handled in your country? Write us here at: VOANewsBlog@gmail.com

1 comment:

Peter said...

I agree with Obama that family matters are off limits, but this is where the family meets the road so to speak. When a Sarah Palin slashes the budget for helping unwed mothers cope through the process and John McCain has no position on sex education designed to prevent unwanted pregnancies, we gain a real sense of family, competency and values.