The right to know

There were two posts this week that got my attention, one was by John Murrell of Good Morning Silicon Valley and the other by Rick Merritt at EE Times.
In the first, was a discussion of Apple shutting down the Think Secret blog that broke the story of the Apple Mini a couple of years ago and whether the court decision was a chilling prediction of the end of journalistic freedom for bloggers. The second was a diatribe about marketing spin making it difficult to get information out of companies. It got me thinking about a much-discussed subject in journalism circles: the public's right to know.
When I was in J school, we talked about this a lot. The public's right to know stuff was an absolute we learned. That's why we were in business, but there was a caveat that was also taught, but rarely discussed. What the public has a right to know about is the risk they face in given situations so they have the information to ultimately lead to better societal decision-making.
This changes a lot in what the public really needs to read about and watch and hear. Does the public have a right to know about a product coming out at a particular time, long before it comes out? Maybe. If it affects long-term buying decisions that could benefit or hurt the seller, the buyer and the down-market participants, then, yes, they have a right to know. If the knowledge about the product, that may never be ready for market distribution, can artificially affect stock prices or market decisions, then disseminating information would harm the public.
Let's take the Mac Mini for example. Think Secret revealed that the desktop device would be announced at MacWorld, two weeks before the product was announced. The announcement drove up Apple stock and anticipation for the product. But the information came from within Apple from employees who probably had Apple stock. So leaking the information had a specific financial benefit to people inside of Apple. That can be construed as insider trading. Think Secret sells advertising and getting more readers boosts the sites revenues. Apple has a fiduciary responsibility to disclose information about its business according to legal guidelines and its employees are bound by those rules. The knowledge of this information did not protect the public or help the public make decisions. It did help a few people make some money. In this case, I don't think the journalistic principal of the public's right to know fits. It does fit the principal of "every man for himself." But I don't think that principal has legal or moral backing.
On the other hand we have Rick Merritt complaining about the difficulty of getting information out of companies without marketing spin. While he doesn't invoke the public's right to know he states it implicitly as his reason for being. If certain companies are making inroads into technological issues that can change business for the better, than Rick has a responsibility to report on it. Companies need to consider the greater good of the industry and the public in deciding what to tell journalists. Marketers need to work closer with engineering and legal to determine if certain information is truly harmful to stockholders and employees, for whom they are responsible. If not, then it should be shared in cooperation with the media, especially if it benefits society as a whole.
But the problem is there are no hard and fast guidelines to determine the answer to those questions, there are only degrees. And that's why it's important not only to talk about them, but keep them in mind as we work through our responsibilities to each other.