Monday, January 25, 2010

Stanton v. Metro Corp.

DEAR SELIGSGROVE, PA:  Maybe try a google scholar search to get to something other than this page?

Is it defamatory to imply that a teenage girl engages in promiscuous behavior? What if it's just using her picture to illustrate an article on teen promiscuity that appears on a metropolitan area magazine?

We discussed a case in Media Law today, where a teen girl was pictured as the illustration to an article on the increase in all the crazy sex ads kids are getting up to these days. There was a disclaimer, yes, but it said she was part of some other project that was also on teen sexuality, and it was small enough that some people in our class didn't notice it when they first looked over the article.

So-- it might-- or might not-- imply that this girl gets around. Her name isn't mentioned, but it's a very clear picture, and anyone who knew her would have recognized it. One of the guys, who used to work for one of my least favorite news organizations, was of the opinion that it would be ridiculous to call it defamation, and that media needs to be able to use stock images in their posts. Ok, fine, stock images, whatever. I can see stock images being ok most of the time, but in this setting, even if it's legally ok (which it was, in this case, because of the disclaimer) I think it isn't ethical.

Yes, there are some legal things I think are actually unethical!

The argument that readers will read the entire article and not decide the girl is involved in the behavior seems illogical to me. Even knowing that a lot of media sources use stock photography, I still think I would assume that a picture of a teen in an article about a subgroup of teens might be one of them. Particularly a shot where the girl pictured is clearly the average looking, non-model type. In something like Cosmo, which regularly runs sex articles alongside posed images, you know the advice or stories are general enough to not include the model. In something that's offering real life anecdotes from real teens, paired with an unposed image of teens? I think that leaping to the conclusion that the pictured teens are involved is not that far of a jump.

So. Assuming all that-- what's wrong with sending the message that a girl is promiscuous? After all, I'm pretty pro-slut, as long as people handle everything safely, and keep a realistic view on the emotions involved.

But not everyone is like that. And as much as some of us might like for sexual behavior to be de-stigmatized, it is still stigmatized, especially when we're talking about teens. Regardless of their actual sexual behavior, teens who are thought to be promiscuous are often judged. Adults may disrespect them, being less likely to offer them a job or scholarship, and honor societies may decide the students don't meet some moral honor code. Even if the other teens are promiscuous, this girl could have become a sort of poster child for sleeping around-- and despite the slant of the article her image was featured in, the other students may have labelled her as a slut, dirty, and not worth treating as an equal. Finally, sexuality is a personal thing-- and the amount people are willing to share can vary wildly. Just like people should have the choice to be open about their lives-- and not shamed for it-- they should have the choice to keep their sex life private-- and not be shamed for it.

It is unethical in my worldview because this girl should be in control of her sexuality and how she chooses to display it. That choice was taken from her by the actions of the magazine in a totally legal manner. And removing that choice is a violation of personal identity.

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