Editorial: Sex sells, but at what cost?

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Sex sells. But the question is, should it?

In a case against Gawker Media, former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan won $115 million in compensatory damages and another $25 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy after he sued the media company for publishing excerpts of a sex tape he was in.

The damages were $55 million for economic harm and $60 million for emotional distress.

He claims he didn’t know the video, which shows him having intercourse with his then-best friend’s wife, was being filmed. Other celebrity entertainment-focused publications published the news, yet Gawker was the sole outlet to post the video on its site.

Gawker has since said it plans to appeal the decision because it believes the jury did not hear all the information they wanted to present.

Was it newsworthy? For publications like TMZ and other gossipy tabloids, news like this encompasses the majority of what they write about. Celebrities’ personal lives and the rumors surrounding them are what these outlets specialize in, and as a consumer, it’s what you expect from them. Like any business entity, the money is in the audience. Public interest is what generates coverage of these kinds of stories, and the drive to write more like them.

The private lives of celebrities and public figures have always been subjects of scrutiny among the general public. People want to know about the latest celebrity break up and the scandalous lives of these people they’ve never met. We’ve seen juicy details splayed out over magazine covers plenty of times — information about divorces, infidelity, illness and hookups. But where is the line crossed? Does a right to privacy come into play?

As public figures, celebrities can generally expect less privacy than a regular citizen and since they have been the ones to put themselves on the spotlight, they expect some part of their personal lives to be talked about. What’s more, there is no constitutional right to privacy. So does support or protection to individuals — particularly those in the public eye — really exist?

This verdict suggests it does. It’s a step closer to making privacy more of a legal concern for media outlets.

The reporting of the sex tape events in itself isn’t an obtrusion into a celebrity’s privacy. Yet, the posting of an explicit video — especially without express consent from the subjects — is a whole other level of intrusiveness. 

The effects of this verdict, although relevant to news productions sustaining themselves on gossip and scandalous tidbits, will probably not cause a long term effect across the whole media industry, mostly because publications like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal contain content vastly different from the events and people that Gawker covers. The type of content specific media produces often also underscore how strict they are about what they publish. You wouldn’t see the same type of articles in The New York Times and in TMZ. So, consumers have to be aware of what media they are consuming publish and the validity of their articles. 

But, the ruling could have an effect on the decision-making process of publications similar to Gawker in that they might be more cautious as to the way they present the news. They will probably still report on the scandalous lives of the Hollywood elites, but might think twice about publishing too-private facts.

The industry as a whole will not be affected by this case since it doesn’t threaten first amendment rights, but rather challenges the notion of privacy. The media has the ability and responsibility to filter what it publishes and what they keep away from the public, and in this case, Gawker stood alone in publishing the video.

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