Court ruling on eavesdropping may give new meaning to "open mic"

The ruling  by the Illinois Supreme Court that strikes down the state statute prohibiting the recording of conversations without permission may not be the panacea a lot of people are hoping for.

The Chicago Tribune reports that the statute was considered among the strictest in the Country.  The Court said loud conversations in public could not “be deemed private”, noting “…a loud argument on the street, a political debate on a college quad, yelling fans at an athletic event, or any conversation loud enough that the speakers should expect to be heard by others.”

The case was, to no surprise, complicated and came as a result of recordings made by Annabel Melongo who recorded three telephone conversations she had with a court reporter supervisor at the Leighton Criminal Court Building about the policy for correcting a hearing transcript.  Melongo was convicted and spent 20 months in Cook County Jail.  Melongo also posted those recordings on the Internet.

While the Court’s ruling does not specifically cite the recording of telephone conversations, you can bet that there are those people who will record anything without asking.

And therein lies the problem.

For responsible citizens and journalists, the use of recording devises is a useful backup to ensure accuracy as no one likes to be misquoted.  Freedom to record does not diminish the need for courtesy and ethics. It seems logical that a reporter, or other individual seeking to record a conversation, would inform the interviewee – whether it’s an in-person or phone interview.  I imagine there will be a new round of protocol for both interviewers and interviewees.

For interviewers, inform; for interviewees ask.  If the Court ruling does in fact cover telephone interviews, do people now have to answer their phone “hello, please don’t record this”?

So while people will point the finger are over-zealous interviewers, there seems to be a possibility that some people, especially public officials, may clam up out of fear of being recorded.  Good by transparency.  At some point, in some way, the two sides need to work together.   Responsible recorders, and for the sake of argument, journalists need to have full disclosure from public officials no matter how the information is being taken down – writer or recorded.  Conversely, journalists will need to follow ethical standards and not be deceitful in how they record (written or audio) information.

The Code of Ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists state that journalists should“…Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story…”  Quite simply, in most cases, do not be deceitful.

At a time when there are more and more “citizen journalists” professional journalists need to maintain or raise the bar of ethical news gathering.  A gentle reminder that a conversation is being recorded is a great step to incorporate.

Conversely, interviewees, especially public officials, need to recognize the need for transparency and not hide behind a microphone.

It’s a two-way street and in the end, it’s the news consumer who benefits the most.

For a look at the opinion by the Illinois Supreme Court, go to Eavesdropping Opinion

Leave a comment