Every great political scandal, or any scandal actually, has started with someone leaking sensitive, confidential information to a third party: the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, the Abu Ghraib Torture Scandal. There is even a whistle-blowing website dedicated to this cause called WikiLeaks. It was founded by Julian Assange and allows anyone to upload secret, confidential data for the world to see. This is where Bradley Manning leaked thousands of sensitive, military intelligence documents and videos, from “war logs” to State Department cables, that made the world, even allies, distrust the United States.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ (SPJ) code of ethics says that using stolen documents should be avoided. Stolen means they are another entity’s private property. However, in the case that the information present is vital to the public’s right to know, they can, and should, be used. SPJ’s ethics chairman, Andrew Seaman, says that as long as a journalist had no hand in stealing the documents then it is permissible to have a peek to see if the data given is of public interest. In the political scandals previously mentioned the need of the public’s right to know was more important than how the documents were obtained. Unfortunately, in today’s digital age the public feels they have a right to know everything.
In July of 2015, Ashley Madison, a married person’s “dating” site that touts the tagline “Life is short. Have an affair,” was hacked and over 32 million users’ data was stolen. This data included: names, email addresses, birthdates, and credit card information. The hackers, self-identified as Impact Team, warned Avid Life Media (the owners of Ashley Madison) that if they didn’t shut the site down they would expose all the stolen user information on the web. Avid Life Media did not shut down the site and, in consequence, Impact Team posted a list of all the email address of the Ashley Madison site on dark net. Here is where it gets ethically tricky for journalists.
Some journalists look at this data dump of information as, “Hey, it’s out there. Why not use it as long as the code of ethics are followed?” Monica Guzman, vice-chair of ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists, states, “Public is not the same as published. If you’re a journalist, you are assuming responsibility for what you publish.” As journalists, it is our responsibility to be fair, to be objective, to minimize harm, and to think of the long-reaching consequences of what we publish and the devastating consequences it can cause. In the next post in the Series on Ethics, which is published the fourth Friday of each month, we’ll be taking a closer look at minimizing harm and just how far is too far when reporting the news.