Privacy and the Public Interest: Frederick, MD, News-Post and the Bruce Ivins Story


CSJ-08-0015.0PO This two-part case is about how the media balances personal right to privacy against the public right to know. The Frederick, MD, News-Post was the hometown paper of Bruce Ivins, whom the FBI suspected of killing five people in November 2001 when he mailed anthrax-laden letters to public figures. Coming on the heels of the terrorist attacks of September 11, the anthrax deaths spread panic throughout the country and temporarily closed down all three branches of the federal government. Ivins killed himself on July 29, 2008, before the FBI could arrest him. The FBI—which had an embarrassing track record of identifying the wrong suspect—had not yet released its evidence against him when the Ivins family scheduled two memorial services: one at Fort Detrick, where the scientist had worked, on August 6; and one for family on August 9. The family asked that the press stay away. The News-Post had twice to consider whether or not to send a reporter to the services.

Students are asked to consider what are the obligations of a newspaper to its readers, and to those it writes about. Is Ivins a legitimate subject of public interest? Even if Ivins has been thrust into the public spotlight, does that justify ignoring his family’s wishes? Students will debate where the line falls between protecting privacy and informing the public. By introducing Parts A & B in succession, faculty can encourage students to examine whether a moral stance should be unwavering, or change with circumstances. They can also discuss the influence of competition on editorial decisions.

This case can be used in a class on journalism ethics; media competition; reporting techniques and strategy; privacy versus public interest; or the challenges faced by local versus national media.


This case was written by Kathleen Gilsinan for the Knight Case Studies Initiative, Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University. The faculty sponsor was Professor Ruth Padawer. Funding was provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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