Drawing the Line: How We’ll Cover Steve Jobs’ Health

This morning’s revelation that Apple CEO Steve Jobs will be taking a second medical leave of absence in two years has led to many legitimate questions, including those surrounding Apple’s succession plans, as well as the impact that any extended absence might have on the company’s product pipeline. However, another type of question reared its ugly head again immediately after the announcement: the specific status of Steve Jobs’ health, down to the nitty-gritty of his medical condition. Though we report every day on the ups and downs of Apple and its products, we have strong reservations about reporting on its personnel and their personal lives, even when the stories might be considered interesting reading.

First, a little history. The timing of Jobs’ 2009 leave of absence announcement came less than 10 days after he penned an open letter blaming recent weight loss on a “hormone imbalance” and stated that he would continue as CEO during his recovery. This change came as a shock to many observers, who felt that Apple and Jobs were being overly secretive. Somewhat consequently, coverage of Jobs’ health in the months following was intense, with doctors speculating on possible causes without ever having examined the man in person, and the quantity of discussion came to rival Apple’s most anticipated product introductions. The quality of discussion, however, did not. Reports regarding Jobs’ illness crossed a line that became more like gossip than journalism. Only when he was ready to return to work did the world discover that Jobs had received a liver transplant, a revelation that served to spark further debate over Apple’s disclosure policies.

Some people are more concerned with Apple’s stock price than the human side of this story. These people suggest that the details of Jobs’ health are of material interest to those invested in the company, and basically any and all information related to his health should be immediately disclosed, personal privacy be damned. As you might have guessed, we don’t share this view. Regardless of our relationship with Apple, our experiences with its CEO, or our particular feelings about any of the company’s products, Steve Jobs is a man with a limited lifespan, a family, and a reasonable expectation of privacy. As one of the technology industry’s most respected innovators, he has done more for this world in the last 30 years than virtually anyone reading these words right now. He has not gone out of his way to attract attention outside of his work at Apple. And he has pleaded for journalists to respect his and his family’s privacy, something that anyone who has been through medical issues of their own should appreciate on a human level.

Going forward, we will not be posting the kind of speculative stories—“Doctor says tumor could have metastasized again,” “Jobs seen looking frail prior to announcement”—that other publications, including those well-connected to Apple, seem to be fine with publishing. These stories may generate traffic and discussion, but apart from the obvious point that Jobs has limited his role with Apple and may not return to active duty in the near future—points that were made clearly in Apple’s media advisory—they have little value as anything other than tabloid fodder. When and if there is official, concrete news concerning Jobs’ health—news that we genuinely hope will be positive—we’ll publish it, assuming that there’s good reason to believe that it will have an actual impact on Apple as a company or its products going forward. There’s a fine line between reporting news and mercilessly repeating gossip, a line which will no doubt be crossed multiple times in the months ahead. We’re not going to participate in that, and hope that other publications will make the same pledge. At some point, human decency should prevail over pageviews, and this would be a very good time to start.

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