A Case of Failed Journalism Ethics

Source: Wikipedia.org
Source: Wikipedia.org

Members of the Fourth Estate should honor the idea of privacy when there is no compelling public need to know.

The massive hack into Sony and Columbia Pictures’ computers at the end 2013 was recently made worse because of a decision by WikiLeaks to catalogue and release 30-thousand company documents and 173-thousand employee e-mails. The original cyber-attack, which included theft of the sophomoric film, The Interview, is sometimes credited to North Korea. Others who follow these things aren’t so sure.

What is apparent is that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has decided that the presumed confidentiality for communications we all expect as a functional necessity in organizational life means nothing.  His rationale for releasing the documents is generic and lame: Sony is “newsworthy and at the centre of a geo-political conflict.”  And so—with too many hangers-on within a compliant American press—we can all be voyeurs to the health documents of employees, their social security numbers, their phone numbers, and their private communications.  Apparently Assange is determined to “fence” this stolen data to the rest of us.  His egregious decision is made even worse by his decision to  set up a separate website to display the material and make it fully searchable.

Sony has a right to expect that its internal affairs—which apparently involve no violations of any laws–are private. This is simply an unauthorized peek into someone else’s business that is really none of our business.

What makes the theft and publication of these materials even worse is the willingness of many news outlets to mine this stolen property to pander to its readers. It’s still early, and already the New York Post, CNN, the Associated Press, the New York Times, The Verge, Gawker, the Daily Beast, New York Magazine and others have published gossipy stories from these memos. To my knowledge no major news organizations outlets have editorialized against the practice, even though the fig leaf of legitimate “news” keeps slipping out of place with every innocuous story ginned out of the celebrity e-mails.

This gossip won’t be repeated here. But you get the idea if you remember the temptations of news sites who carried images of an unclothed Jennifer Lawrence stolen from Apple’s ‘cloud.”

Too few journalists have taken the principled position of Slate’s Jacob Weisberg:

“News outlets should obviously cover the story of the hack itself, the effect on Sony, the question of how it happened, and who’s responsible. This is a big and legitimate news story. But when it comes to exploiting the fruits of the digital break-in, journalists should voluntarily withhold publication. They shouldn’t hold back because they’re legally obligated to—I don’t believe they are—but because there’s no ethical justification for publishing this damaging, stolen material."

Federal courts have  ruled that the press can publish most kinds of material stolen by a third party. There is understandable value of immunizing journalists against governmental sources that would like to suppress evidence of failed policies or simple malfeasance. There is no question the nation was well-served by the unauthorized release and publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.  But nothing so grand is at risk here. This is the equivalent of opportunists looting a store that has been torn open by an earthquake.

Assange’s efforts to frame his voyeurism in the language of “public service” is an abuse of the term. His error of judgment should also be apparent to members of the Fourth Estate, who must honor the idea of privacy when there is no compelling public need to know.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu