IABC President Julie Freeman TechCrunch's decision to publish internal documents stolen from Twitter, "Was it appropriate to publish stolen documents? Even if the information obtained was accurate? Was it ethical? Does the public have the right to know how Twitter (or any company) plans to make its money and when? Does how information is obtained affect whether it should be published?"
I've decided to post my answer here.
I was struck by one of Robert Scoble's remarks on FriendFeed, part of a lengthy discussion on the controversy. In response to the argument that nothing in the Twitter documents seemed to rise to the level of "public interest" that would justify their publication, Robert wrote, "I went to journalism school and we were taught to publish information, even stuff that was gotten through questionable means, and not hold back when it comes across our desk."
I went to journalism school, too, though admittedly many years earlier than Robert. But I don't remember ever being taught to publish whatever crossed my desk. Given how long it's been, though, since I sat in a journalism ethics class, I decided to throw the question to a friend who is the chair of the journalism school at a reputable university. (I haven't heard back from him with permission to cite him, but will update this post when he returns, assuming he gives me the go-ahead.)
I presented the situation in generic terms: "A reporter finds a package on his desk. He opens it and finds it contains documents that were clearly and unquestionably stolen from the source. Their exposure does not serve the public interest (unlike, say, The Pentagon Papers or the Brown & Williamson documentation whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand turned over to 60 Minutes)."
Here's what I heard back:
- First, the editor would have to verify the contents and try to figure out who delivered it, where they got it from, and so on.
- Most reporters would try to find another source to corroborate the information.
- A reporter or editor would have to evaluate the news value vs. the privacy and potential harm issues.
This response dovetails nicely with my own recollection of journalism ethics from my days in journalism school (1972-1976). It's also inconsistent with Robert's "publish stuff" approach and the quote TechCrunch's Michael Arrington offered as justification: ""News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising" (attributed to newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe, although there's no evidence he actually said it).
I've seen dozens of definitions of news and most of them convey the same fundamentals: News is information or an event that is current, involves some kind of change from the way things are, and has an impact on a group of people. While the communication of such stories may piss some people off, that's not the criteria for deciding what gets covered. Rather, it's something journalists shouldn't let influence them when deciding whether to go to press with a story.
As near as I can tell, nothing in the Twitter documents published by TechCrunch rises to the level of "public interest." It was published because it was titillating and would draw traffic.
Given that there is probably no legal liability for publishing these documents, you have to ask yourself who would be most inclined to publish stolen content the release of which does not serve the public interest. It reminds me of ethics discussions we had when I worked for a global consulting firm. If somebody handed you a proposal stolen from a competitor for a client you were bidding on, would you use it to improve your own chances of winning the work? Answer: No, we'd return it to the company from which it was stolen. (On the other hand, if someone from the competing firm happened to leave a copy lying around, that's another story.)
Pepsi embodied the highest ethical standards when they refused to accept a formula stolen from Coca-Cola and offered to them for a price, opting instead to turn the material back over to Coke and the thief to the police.
My friend, the journalism school chair, did suggest that "Murdoch would definitely publish (the documents)." He's speaking of Rupert, of course, whose News Corp. owns such bastions of journalism as The Sun and News of the World, two of the most brazen London tabloids.
Nowhere in Michael Arrington's many, many words devoted to the Twitter documents did he indicate that he tried to find an alternate legitimate source for the information, corroborate it or engage in any of the other practices ethical journalists are expected to embrace. Perhaps Rupert Murdoch should consider acquiring TechCrunch, since they would seem to be birds of a feather.
One has to wonder how Arrington would have reacted if the confidential internal documents in question had been stolen from TechCrunch and published by Mashable or ReadWriteWeb (not to suggest that either of these sites would publish stolen documents). Somehow I suspect he would have been a little less cavalier about the ethical breech.