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News & Press: General News: From the magazine

APME News: Stolen goods — Navigating journalistic ethics

Sunday, January 1, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Laura Sellers-Earl
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By Ken Paulson

A quick hypothetical: Imagine you’re the editor of a community newspaper (and if you’re reading this column, you probably are.)  

The mayor of your town is running for re-election and the contest is getting heated.  An unknown person supporting the challenger hacks into the mayor’s email account and releases embarrassing messages once a week leading up to the election.  There is no proof of illegal conduct in the emails, but they do make the mayor appear tawdry and opportunistic.  

What would you do?  In most newsrooms, we would get together and talk it through.  We would try to authenticate the emails and identify the source. We would review the ethical considerations and weigh the public interest in these emails against our discomfort with illegally obtained correspondence.

We might come down in somewhat different places on this issue, but one thing is certain: responsible editors would think long and hard about being manipulated by an unknown figure sharing unverified content with the clear intent of affecting our communities’ most important election.

Of course, that process would be in sharp contrast to the way the news media have handled the stolen emails released by Wikileaks in recent months.  Despite a high likelihood that these emails were stolen by Russian agents and were being distributed in an effort to manipulate our national election, there wasn’t a lot of soul searching going on in America’s cable and network newsrooms, They didn’t hesitate. They just backed up the truck.

That shouldn’t surprise us, particularly during a no-holds-barred election. You can argue that Donald Trump’s taxes and Hillary Clinton and John Podesta’s emails are fair game, particularly given the stakes No one deserves more scrutiny than the next leader of the free world.

The publication of stolen data doesn’t always have a lofty purpose:

In 2014, hackers stole 500 images of nude and half-dressed of celebrities from their private accounts on the iCloud. Websites, most notably Reddit, posted the photos and those very private photos were suddenly very public.

Later in the year, Sony Pictures Entertainment was hacked by a group threatening to release stolen emails unless they agreed not to distribute “The Conversation,” the comedy mocking North Korea leader Kim Jong-un. When the stolen e-mails were released,  many   -including trade journalists-ran with them, reporting salary details and snarky executive gossip.

There are indisputably times when when illegally obtained material is of such overwhelming news value that we really need to publish.  Exhibit A is the Pentagon Papers, but it’s hardly the only example of public service journalism fueled by illegally leaked information.

But the key is always to apply high and consistent standards whenever laws are broken and content falls into our hands. America’s newsrooms can’t lose sight of their principles just because cable channels have already jumped all over a story and social media outlets are abuzz.   Admittedly, it sometimes seems pointless to be the holdout once stolen documents are a part of a global conversation.

There is a certain irony in this.  Journalists fight aggressively for stronger public records laws and more transparency, but see very little support from the public.  And yet transparency by theft is eagerly embraced.

Using stolen information from questionable sources may help drive readership and audience size, but it’s a very uncomfortable place to be.  If we are indiscriminate in the use of stolen content, we’re no longer journalists.  We’re just fences.  

Ken Paulson is president of the First Amendment Center and the dean of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University.

Associated Press Media Editors

APME is a professional network, a resource for helping editors and broadcasters improve their news coverage and newsroom operations.

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