Journalists generally agree that it’s appropriate to use ill-gotten information in the public interest, whether it’s the Pentagon Papers or a massive email hack.
But good intentions and execution are two different things. The latter involves a solid process rooted in journalistic values — because public interest is a moving target. Some newsrooms claim public interest when information is merely interesting, funny or salacious. The article about Channing Tatum’s goofy email might fall into that category.
BuzzFeed’s look at Maureen Dowd’s practice of allowing prior review, which Dowd denied, could be in the public interest because Dowd is a powerful columnist at a powerful newspaper that influences public opinion. If she shows special favor to certain people, it would be in the public interest to know that. But BuzzFeed’s lack of additional reporting on their initial story suggests their motives were less about public interest and more about public shaming.
Bloomberg’s piece on Sony’s knowledge of its employees’ medical records is perhaps the best example of reporting in the public interest that’s come out of the recent hack. It’s a story that starts with the emails, but delves into a corporate practice that has moral, legal and public policy implications for everyone.
As a journalist, your ethical obligations remain the same whether information is delivered directly to you by a confidential informant, or simply posted to a public website. Your first priority is accuracy. Can you verify that the information itself is true? Or are you just repeating it? On top of that, how can you supplement accuracy with both precision and context to add value to the information?
When faced with information gained by nefarious means, a journalist should:
- Do additional reporting to verify the details. You must be sure it is accurate before you pass it along
- Avoid distortion and instead ensure appropriate tone. This means watching your headlines, adjectives and all the other details that give a particular piece of information a certain tone. When you add flavor to information, it needs to be appropriate.
- Add context, by seeking additional input or rebuttal from the relevant stakeholders. Context makes information more accurate.
Truth is the rudder that steers ethical decisions in journalism. Is this information true? That’s the first, but not the only question journalists ask. Does it enhance our understanding of a situation? The obligation to seek the truth trumps, but does not excuse other ethical transgressions.
Rather than insisting that journalists delete information they’ve published, Sony lawyers would have perhaps gained more traction and public sympathy if they had reminded newsrooms of their obligation to verify truths.