The massive hack of Sony’s emails has presented publishers with a quandary: What should they publish of this ill-gotten trove, which includes content that runs the gamut from embarrassing personal conversations and movie star trash-talk to highly personal information like Social Security numbers?
Predictably, there has also been a range of responses by media outlets. Some, including Business Insider, Daily Mail (previously Mail Online) and Gawker Media, have dived deep in reporting on the documents. Others, like The New York Times, The Verge and Slate have been more restrained. (Digiday followed others in reporting on Snapchat revelations that came out of the hack but was not the first to print any emails.)
Whether publishers could face legal trouble for publishing the stolen goods is another matter. Sony threatened to sue media outlets if they used them. A Washington Post analysis concluded Sony probably isn’t likely to win such a case, though the threat has already had a chilling effect, with reddit having banned users from using the hacked documents and sharing the files.
Putting aside the legal concerns, publishers are taking various paths in deciding where the line is.
The Times said it would only cover the emails after other outlets made them public, and other outlets also have reblogged material, feeling justified that it was already reported elsewhere. Gawker Media, on the other hand, has been out front in reporting on documents when, it said, they “shed light on major corporate issues and public figures that are already at the center of the public conversation and speculation,” said Heather Dietrick, president and general counsel there. Still, Gawker and others say they have been careful to avoid publishing people’s sensitive information, like medical data.
The media may argue that emails are in the public interest when really, it’s more that they’re “interesting to the public.” The test, said Kelly McBride, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute, is whether the public interest is really being advanced in a way that wouldn’t be possible without using the leaked documents, she said, adding that the media also should try to independently verify the information before reporting it, firsthand or not.
Then, there’s the matter of the source. Sure, reporting has often relied on questionably gotten information. Leakers always have a motive, and it falls to the journalist to parse that out. But the alleged role of the North Korean dictatorship in the Sony leaks has given media outlets pause from the start about whether they should report on the stolen data, whether they download it themselves or not.
“I just think you need to be aware of the larger context,” said Slate chairman Jacob Weisberg. “You have the most vile dictator in the world trying to stop Sony from distributing a film that makes fun of him, and he’s succeeded in doing that.” Weisberg was critical of his own publication for writing about a possible gender pay gap at Sony based on leaked documents. (Justin Peters disagreed with him on Slate, saying just because the leaker had one purpose, it doesn’t mean the documents can’t be used for another.)
For some in the media, it was hard not to get caught up in the surge of reporting.
The Verge initially held back from downloading the emails, said Emily Yoshida, entertainment editor there. Yoshida said that her first reaction was that the release of private information was “terrible” and a “huge breach of privacy.” But after a few days, she and her colleagues got swept along in the tide. “Everyone else is breaking stories on it; we should be, too,” she recalled thinking. “I can’t claim to have made this very principled decision from the outset.”
Once it started digging, the Verge deemed spoiler notes about a James Bond movie to not be newsworthy. But it did report on an operation by the MPAA, saying it had free speech implications. It also re-reported others’ stories on the Sony co-chief Amy Pascal’s disparaging comments about President Obama. Given the chance, she would do things differently, Yoshida said. “Our eagerness to reblog stories like the Amy Pascal emails — we’d just check ourselves a little more and make sure we really felt it was going to be useful and build trust with our readers.”
The whole question of whether publishers should report on the leaks is complicated by the disruption in the media landscape. News sites and tabloids that are held to different standards of accountability. Old media is being surpassed by new sites that are a hybrid, founded on fluff and gossip but also seeking to be taken seriously.
“BuzzFeed is a particularly interesting example because they have a desire to be seen as a legitimate operation,” McBride said. “Deadspin and Gawker are even further down the continuum of legitimate journalism and despicable tabloid. They defy categorization.” On the other end of the spectrum, the backlash against anonymous sourcing by serious news outlets has died down.
And ultimately, publishers can’t ignore the traffic appeal. Even Yoshida said of the Verge’s stories, “They’ve been doing pretty well for us. It’s become such a huge story for us.”
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