March 4, 2016

Gawker has served up a cocktail of potential ethical quandaries just in time for happy hour.

On Friday afternoon, the Manhattan-based outlet posted three recordings purportedly stolen from Donald Trump’s voicemail by a group of anonymous hackers. Although Gawker was unable to verify the identity of the voices, they supposedly belong to three prominent journalists from MSNBC: “Morning Joe” co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski and host Tamron Hall.

Two of the recordings feature a speaker identifying herself as “T Hall.” In one of the clips, the voice describes a meeting and advises the recipient — presumed to be Trump — that she intends to use his discount at Gucci for a $3,000 dress. In the second recording, “T Hall” references a YouTube video and tells the recipient that its contents are not “becoming” of a “statesman.” In the third recording, voices purportedly belonging to Scarborough and Brzezinski ask the recipient to return their call.

Below is a question-and-answer session with Kelly McBride, vice president of The Poynter Institute and its media ethicist, on whether Gawker was justified in posting the voicemails, and whether the content of the messages raise ethical issues.

There seem to be many ethical considerations at play here. Can you tease them out for us?

At first blush there are at least five issues. Let me list them in order of seriousness, from least concern to greatest:

  • There is the old problem of journalists being too cozy with their sources.
  • We appear to have a journalist accepting a valuable gift (a Gucci discount) from a source.
  • Gawker has received stolen information.
  • Gawker is publishing information with very little effort to verify it or provide additional context.
  • And then you have folks brazenly hacking into someone’s email.

Gawker said it was unable to independently verify the purported voicemails. Should staffers have waited to confirm the identities of the speakers before they published the story?

In addition to confirming, it’s more important to add sufficient context to understand the information in accurate context. Without any additional reporting, there are more questions than answers.  That’s a problem because when you give the audience giant unanswered questions, people fill in the blanks by guessing. As a publisher you  have to take responsibility for that. Gawker said staffers “reached out” but it didn’t say how. Did they call Scarborough, Brzezinski and Hall? Email them? How much time did they give them to get back?

In one of the recordings, a voice that identifies itself as belonging to “T Hall” advises the recipient that she plans to use his or her discount at Gucci. If the speaker is actually MSNBC’s Tamron Hall, and the recipient is actually Donald Trump, is using that discount a conflict of interest?

Sure, that sounds like a pretty valuable gift, if she really used it. Journalists don’t accept gifts from their sources because it creates competing loyalties. And even if there is no evidence that a journalist acted on those competing loyalties by placing the source’s interest in front of the audience, there is the perception of a conflict, which is enough to allow consumers to doubt the journalist and her organization.

Gawker has published information here that it’s representing as stolen by hackers. Other news organizations, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, have published classified records taken by whistleblowers. Is this any different?

When information is stolen, you want to know as much about the thief’s motives as possible. Often, stolen information is vitally important to the public’s understanding of an issue, such as the Pentagon Papers. But you have to do your due diligence first by knowing your source, how they really got the information and whether they might have an unseen ulterior motive. I see that Gawker tried unsuccessfully to duplicate the source’s method. The fact that staffers couldn’t duplicate it is a red flag that they needed to do more reporting to understand more about the source. Beyond that, I’m not detecting much of an attempt at due diligence at all from Gawker.

One of the issues raised by Gawker in the story is the degree of intimacy journalists have with their subjects. If the speakers are indeed stars from MSNBC, is there anything wrong with the level of familiarity on display here?

It’s really hard to say based on these voicemails. The dress discount would be clearly over the line. But everything else is unclear. In 2012, Trump was the star of “The Apprentice.” He could also have been a source. But he was kind of in the NBC family. On top of that, journalists walk a fine line with sources. You have to be able to see them as human beings, so you often have quite familiar interactions (How’s your family/puppy/garden doing?) That’s not crossing a line, even though it’s often surprising to outsiders to be privy to those conversations.

Gawker’s real point here is that Trump is deceiving his followers by suggesting that he isn’t just as familiar with the media as every other politician, not that the reporters themselves are being overly familiar.

Managing Editor Benjamin Mullin contributed to this report.

This post has been updated.

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Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty…
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