Our View | Katie Hill, Privacy and the Dilemmas Journalists Face

Sometimes, the most difficult decisions we make in this business involve the stories we don’t run. 

We’ve been wrestling with this one for the past two weeks, as rumors and photos have circulated, at first among local political circles, then on the internet, social media and in multiple media outlets about the personal life of our congressional representative, Katie Hill. 

Much of it is quite salacious. We’re not going to show it to you here, nor are we going to go into great detail. If you have Google, Twitter or Facebook, you can find it, if you’re so inclined. 

Our focus here is on the dilemma this has posed for us as a community news organization. 

When our elected representatives misbehave, we consider it part of our job to shine a light on that. But when does private misbehavior cross the line into the public realm? What if someone close to a public figure leaks heretofore private images or text messages — is that any of the public’s business, or is it just an invasion of privacy? 

In today’s media environment, the standards for such things are at the bottom of a slippery slope. 

What if those images or text messages show an elected official engaged in an intimate relationship with a subordinate? Does it make a difference if that subordinate is a campaign staffer rather than a government employee? The latter is prohibited by House ethics rules. The former is not, but it certainly flies in the face of good judgment and current personnel standards for relationships between people of power and their subordinates. 

Do we make news of something that’s just bad judgment, or does it need to rise to a higher level than that before we report it as a news story? Is a screenshot of a text message, with no verification of its authenticity, enough to run with?

Does any of this information potentially compromise an elected official who serves on several important congressional committees and may be privy to sensitive government information?

There are many factors to weigh. 

Make no mistake. We disagree with Katie Hill’s politics. We didn’t endorse her in 2018 and even before this information came to light, it was a longshot that we would endorse her for re-election. But that’s honest policy disagreement about what’s best for our country and the 25th Congressional District. We may editorialize about those disagreements but we will not be active participants in any campaign, either for or against her, or any other political candidate — nor should our political opinions weigh on the news judgment decisions we make. 

Katie Hill, D-Agua Dulce, is in the midst of a divorce. It’s gotten ugly, as many divorces do. It’s been going on since July. We have not mentioned it in our news coverage because we didn’t believe it was relevant to her role as a congresswoman — and, even though divorce proceedings are public record, we’ve considered it a “personal” matter between Hill and her estranged husband, Kenny Heslep. 

Then along came the leaked photos and text messages — along with some social media posts from Heslep — thrusting the divorce into a bright public spotlight. Social media went crazy. Some of the leaked photos and texts were published online, and some media outlets and blogs just parroted the initial story published on RedState.com without even doing any of their own reporting. 

Predictably, Hill’s supporters have come to her defense, and in many cases ironically and even hypocritically so. In the #MeToo era, if Katie Hill were a Republican, they would be demanding her head on a stick.  

On the other side of the coin, we’ve come under some pressure from readers who have asked why we haven’t been covering this particular issue. Some of those readers are politically motivated. Some are just curious, and that’s understandable. 

Regardless of what transpires next, it has put us on the horns of a dilemma. 

These last two weeks, we’ve been wrestling with it quite a bit. What should we report to our readers? Which pieces of information are legitimate news and which ones are just invasive, salacious gossip?

So far, we haven’t seen evidence of a crime, or a confirmed violation of House ethics code. Heslep alleges one in his text messages and social media posts, but there’s no backup for it.

It’s a big allegation for a media outlet to float out there when the only evidence is a screenshot of a text message from an estranged spouse, received via a third party. 

Yes, there’s evidence of bad judgment on Hill’s part. But much of it predates her 2018 election win, and all of the coverage so far has relied upon social media posts, leaked photos and text messages that were intended to be private.  

So at this point, we’ve decided we shouldn’t join in the frenzy just because some other media have. We will continue to monitor and evaluate the situation, and see if any new information develops that we believe should legitimately prompt a news story. 

It’s not a decision we take lightly, now or in the future. We will evaluate additional developments as they occur. 

Frankly, how we handle a situation like this says as much about us and our integrity as it does about Katie Hill. We are not relinquishing our vow to remain vigilant, but we also believe in treating all public persons — even those with whom we vehemently disagree — as human beings worthy of respect. 

Whatever happens going forward, Katie Hill deserves that much. 

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