The Ethics of Gossip

One woman showing gossip to another

Delicate Information
Jason is suddenly terminated from his job. His co-workers begin to worry about their own job security -- Jason was well-liked and efficient, and his being fired came out of the blue. Morale begins to suffer as people wonder whether they will be next. Soon, people learn through the office grapevine that Jason had been stealing money from the company's charity fund drive, which he was coordinating.

Jason's co-workers need this information to feel secure in their own jobs, but it would not be appropriate for the company to broadcast it. In this kind of situation, a company's official sources of information can't answer employees' questions, so the employees turn to unofficial sources. For this reason, gossip is often prevalent in businesses that do not communicate well with their employees.

Spreading this information could be considered a violation of Jason's privacy or an assault on his character. In addition, it can be argued that people's confidence in Jason is more important than their sense of job security.

This example also demonstrates something that's typical of a lot of gossip. Most people would probably react to the news of Jason's theft with disbelief. However, everyone trusts that the source of the information is telling the truth -- they suspend their disbelief. Although the idea that someone as kind and responsible as Jason could be a thief can seem absurd, people will pass it on if they believe it to be true.

Being Prepared
Amanda lives in an apartment. One night, someone breaks into the apartment upstairs. Amanda learns that her upstairs neighbors were drug dealers and had recently been arrested. Her landlord evicted the neighbors, but they'd left most of their possessions in the apartment. Police theorize that the thief had bought drugs from the neighbors and had broken in looking for drugs or money.

Amanda is surprised, since she thought her neighborhood was a safe one. Her landlords clean out the upstairs apartment and rent it to a family who has a young daughter. Concerned for their safety, Amanda tells her new neighbors about the previous neighbors and the break-in.

Gossip and the CIA Leak Scandal
In 2003, a newspaper column exposed Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA operative, which was classified information. The ensuing investigation and the media's response became known as the "CIA leak scandal." It took about three years for the source of the leak to be uncovered. According to the September 4, 2006 issue of "Newsweek," the source was Richard Armitage, who spread the information as gossip [ref].

Most people think of gossip as negative, but in this situation, Amanda could feel morally obligated to gossip. She's giving her neighbors information that they need to have to ensure their physical safety. She and her neighbors also develop a bond of trust during the conversation, which can make it more likely that they will be able to trust and help each other in the future.

As these examples show, gossip and rumors have some similarities to urban legends. All three can make people aware of typically unspoken social rules and offer a warning of what could happen if the rules are disobeyed. Gossip and urban legends can also take on a life of their own, spreading far beyond the social circle in which they originated. Finally, people often adamantly believe rumors and urban legends they hear, in spite of evidence that they are not true.

For more information about gossip, rumor and urban legends, check out the links on the next page.