Leaky Logic

Reporting based on leaks requires weighing the public's need to know.

September 14, 2016

The news media have been getting complaints from all sides lately. Some of it is knee-jerk blanket blame. (Look at those polls. Ugh. It must be the media’s fault that my side isn’t doing better.) A lot of it is deserved criticism of a false binary, presenting “two sides” for every issue, supposedly for fairness while actually shirking the journalist’s job: to seek the truth and report it. On cable and broadcast news in particular, pundits are replacing reporters and campaign analysis is taking the place of reporting on issues. Yeah, it’s a problem.

But something very specific got my goat on Wednesday morning. Watching television news while having breakfast, I was bothered that one of the lead stories was about the content of some hacked emails, something many news organizations decided to report. Hacking wasn’t the story (though there was the head shaking and homilies about how dangerous the world is and boy, we’d all better watch out online). The story was about the frankly stated opinions of presidential candidates that had been conveyed privately in emails.

The content of those hacked emails isn’t newsworthy. Yes, the writer - Colin Powell - is a public figure. That doesn’t mean everything he says in private is worth minutes of air time (minutes not spent on actual news). Even more importantly, it’s unethical to base a news story on something expressed in private and revealed by invasive and illegal means.

There are times when it is appropriate for leaked information to be the source of a news report. The Pentagon Papers comes to mind. So do the reports based on Edward Snowden’s national security documents. The public has a legitimate need to know how the state has secretly interpreted public legislation and executive orders to invade the privacy of millions of individuals in violation of the Constitution. (We could argue whether these actions are unconstitutional – but not if the very interpretations relied on are state secrets. How crazy is that?) Though many call Snowden a traitor and have vilified the news organizations that reported on these programs, both the leaker and the journalists involved weighed the ethical implications and the possibility that irresponsible sharing of information would put field officers and their sources at risk and made sure the risks were minimized. Contrast that with a recent data dump by Wikileaks, supposedly of Erdogan’s emails but actually including personal information of people who were put at risk for no good reason. Choosing to make a news story out of hacked personal emails simply because the hackers made them public isn’t okay.

Journalists should be careful to evaluate the public value of private information and avoid using information obtained illicitly unless the importance is overwhelmingly in the public interest. Revealing Colin Powell’s private opinions of candidates didn’t even come close to rising to that standard.

I recently worked with a class on understanding sources – how to recognize different kinds, how they serve different functions, and how we can make judgments that go beyond “it’s scholarly, so must be okay.” We looked at how scholars use evidence to build an argument even when they’re writing informally. We talked a little bit about the parallels between journalists’ ethics and how scholars handle ideas. Doing it right matters.

Though this particular “news” story based on hacked emails may be a small thing in the grand scheme of things, it’s a sign of problematically shaky standards at a time when ethical reporting is so badly needed. And when every one of us could be hacked and exposed for all the wrong reasons.



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