When Does Writing Ruin a Meal?

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The other night I was at a small dinner party when the discussion turned to privacy, Facebook, genetic testing, and confidentiality. A friend then recounted how someone had blogged about a recent dinner he had attended, and how he felt violated.

A chill went down my spine. Was my review of a dinner experience with Larry David a violation? What are the ethics of not just reviewing a dinner but of the dining experience and naming other people? Does informed consent solve the problem?

Anyone who lives in Washington and has an official position viscerally understands the cost of a lack of privacy. Every dinner--especially ones with a journalist in attendance--is preceded by the mandatory, "This is off the record." But everyone also knows, nothing is really "off the record." And it may not be just the formal comments that find their way into an article but also the fact that you eat with your fingers, or don't like Brussels sprouts.

When we go out to dinner we should not have to watch what we say, whether we use the right fork, spill the olive oil on the table cloth, or make a mess around our plate.

This makes every encounter a bit charged and tense. Such a fishbowl life is very unpleasant. I am not sure precisely why we need to have privacy, but everyone knows for sure that we need to relax and not have to put on our social, outwardly looking face all of the time.

When we go out to dinner we should not have to watch what we say, whether we use the right fork, spill the olive oil on the table cloth, or make a mess around our plate (You can already get a sense of my foibles). For most of us anonymous types, we did not have to worry about this when we were younger and our habits were ingrained. But with Twitter, phone-cameras, and the rest, life is different.

It shouldn't be. The assumption should be that we will not appear in print or the blogosphere. Having dinner should not be fodder for Facebook. And this is just as true for "public personalities" as it is for the average person. After all, even people in the public eye have a right to a private life.

Did I violate that rule with Larry David? I certainly did not get contemporaneous consent. The inkling to write about our dinner only came afterwards. I showed him what I wrote, and then asked for his consent. Even though he gave it--happily, I might add, as he enjoyed the review--I wonder if such post-hoc consent is sufficient. After all, if he did not like the piece, he would have been in the awkward position of asking me not to post it. Maybe we need consent before going to dinner, while the date is being arranged? "This one is potentially on the record."

This is what the modern world, where public curiosity is constantly invading private lives, has come to: the need not just to enjoy dinner but to think about the ethics of writing about dinner. Or wondering whether someone who doesn't spend a second thinking about ethics will write about you.

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Presented by

Ezekiel J. Emanuel

Ezekiel Emanuel is director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and heads the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

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