How Freedom of the Press Works

Is it Really Newsworthy?
Copies of Swedish celebrity magazine Se & Hor (See and Hear), which published topless pictures of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge taken while on holiday in France, are displayed at a newsstand in Stockholm. She sued for breach of privacy and won. JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images

Just because a country has a free press doesn't mean media outlets there can publish whatever they wish. Many governments classify information on the grounds of national security, so, journalists must strike a balance between the public's right to know and the national interest.

In some cases, editors voluntarily self-censor certain types of information. During World War II, for example, many newspapers skipped bloodcurdling battle details to cushion readers from the horrific realities of life on the war front. Reporters massaged their stories to support the war effort, even if it meant twisting the truth. Doing otherwise would have been deemed detrimental to the overall war effort, which touched every aspect of American society [source: PBS].

On the other hand, reporters may intrude into people's private lives and publish information, that while titillating, has no real news value. As an example, in 2012, a photographer used a telephoto lens to capture Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, sunbathing topless at a private home in southern France. She and her husband Prince William sued for breach of privacy. In late 2017, a French judge agreed, slapped the magazine publisher with a hefty fine and ordered the original images to be returned to the royal couple [source: Amiel].

Content may be newsworthy but still involve risk if an outlet publishes it. In France, the press has many of the same freedoms as America, including the right to publish ideas that are offensive to swaths of the population. But that boldness may come with a price. Charlie Hebdo is a satirical French magazine that's defiantly published cartoons that mocked certain aspects of Islam. The consequences were bloody. Twice (in 2011 and 2015) angry terrorists attacked the company's office. The 2015 attack resulted in the deaths of 12 people, including several of the magazine's editorial staff [sources: Freedom House, Lister].