Ask the ethicist: Should journalists report from leaked medical records?

Category: Ethics & Trust

Journalists were faced with a familiar ethical dilemma Wednesday after Russian hackers leaked private medical information from three prominent U.S. Olympians: Simone Biles, Serena Williams and Venus Williams.

The leaks, which follow hacks of the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign, come with previously undisclosed revelations, including that Biles received an exemption to use otherwise banned drugs.

Today’s breach, a slew of previous hacks and the near certainty of a newsworthy leak in the future raise important questions regarding how journalists should handle public disclosures of sensitive information. Should journalists report from those medical records? Should they publish the records in their entirety? And how can reporters use the information responsibly without glorifying the wrongdoing that led to their disclosure?

Below is a question-and-answer session with Kelly McBride, Poynter’s vice president of academic programs and media ethicist, about how journalists should deal with leaked information.

Should journalists make use of the records?

The operative words here are ‘make use.’ If your job is to report on the Olympics, any of the sports involved or any of the athletes involved, then you’d be foolish and irresponsible if you didn’t look at these records. They are a window into the lives of these individuals, the way the Olympic doping policies work and broader stories about high-level performance. Once something is part of the public domain, it’s futile and impractical for a journalist to argue that on principle, that material is off limits.

Should journalists publish the records themselves?

No. There’s a lot of coded information in medical records that cannot be discerned by the amateur but allows a professional a further window. Disseminating the records more widely furthers the invasion of privacy. Journalists should also avoid linking to the records, for the same reason.

How can journalists responsibly use the information and avoid glorifying the illegal hack?

In addition to not re-publishing the records or linking to them, journalists can minimize the coverage of the hackers outside of stories about the actual hack. For instance, in a story about athletes and treatment for attention-deficit disorder, there is no need to specifically mention the name of the hackers or quote extensively from their statements. It’s more appropriate to mention lower in the body of the story that the information became available after a hack of Olympians medical records and doping tests.

You can also avoid or minimize their designated hashtags, Twitter handles and other mechanisms that bring them attention and make them seem cool or mysterious.