How hacking is changing the news
Posted August 13, 2016
It’s generally believed within the news business that leaked information is suitable to use to inform the public — even if it comes from an anonymous hacker.
But that assumption was tested recently with the breach of Democratic National Committee emails just before the Democratic National Convention last month. Some of the emails belonging to Democratic Party officials revealed party bias against Hillary Clinton opponent Bernie Sanders, forcing the resignation of DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and vice chair Tulsi Gabbard.
The leak, many believe, came not from a concerned member of either political party, but rather from hackers backed by the Russian government, for whom Republican nominee Donald Trump has expressed warmth.
There’s no doubt that the DNC hack and its possible ties to Russia is newsworthy — if its Russian origins are true, the hack would be a troubling and unprecedented attempt of a foreign government to influence an American election.
But the DNC hack has something in common with other recent hacks that worries University of Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics director Kathleen Culver: It may have been pulled off for personal gain rather than with the public’s best interest at heart.
“The days of media outlets being the gatekeepers (of information) are over,” Culver said. “But if hackers with very pernicious motivations set the (news) agenda, that’s a real problem.”
The DNC hack is only the latest in a string of high-profile hacks over the past three years. In 2013, a massive hack on the Target corporation resulted in the theft of 40 million customers’ private data and a $10 million settlement for the retail giant. In 2014, three large hacks — of Apple’s iCloud, Sony film studios, photo messaging app Snapchat and adultery hookup site Ashley Madison — violated the privacy of millions for no apparent reason other than humiliation or exploitation.
This, experts say, puts the media in a difficult position of how to cover hacks whose sources can’t be confirmed and whose motives may not be noble in a news cycle that operates at break-neck speed: Should journalists cover data hacks they don't deem as being in the public's interest and, even then, how can they not?
“Traditionally, we always take into account the source to establish quality, accuracy and special interests,” said Poynter Institute senior scholar Roy Peter Clark. “Hacking adds a dimension to the ethical question of using illegally obtained information because here we’re faced with anonymous sources whose intentions are not always clear.”
Through the ‘back door’
With the exception of exiled NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who leaked sensitive government information to the U.K. Guardian, and the Panama Papers, which were leaked to a coalition of news outlets, most hacked information, including the DNC emails, comes to the public via Wikileaks.
The anonymity of Wikileaks is likely enticing to hackers who come by information illegally, but Clark says distrust of the media generally may make whistleblowers more likely to rely on alternatives like Wikileaks than on more traditional media outlets because it allows them to publish information without any questioning from the media.
“The problem with working with the traditional media is you can’t control them. So people who distrust the media have found ways to try and bypass it,” Clark said. “If you’ve got a watch dog barking and growling at you, sometimes you go around the fence and try the back door instead.”
Culver says how media outlets handle news of hacked information may impact public opinion at a time when public trust in the media is at an all-time low.
Yet Culver and Clark argue the public’s supposed mistrust is often misplaced or overblown.
Clark said that when people think of “the media” today, they’re not just thinking about newspapers with high ethical standards like the Washington Post or the Associated Press, but more ethically loose outlets like Gawker.
“You have people publishing sex tapes of celebrities under the guise of public interest,” Clark said. “When people declare their animosity toward the media, it’s generalized to include many different expressions of information, not all of which adhere to ethical standards and practices.”
Culver said part of the problem is that public media literacy is low, meaning that most people don’t know or understand how newspapers decide what to cover and how to go about it. Culver said the debate was hot during the Ashley Madison hack, when many journalists were reaching out for guidance.
Culver said people didn't get to see how outlets debated whether or not to do stories detailing individuals who used the site, like disgraced conservative reality TV personality Josh Duggar. Because those debates happen behind the scenes, Culver says many people don't know that outlets weigh the consequences of coverage at all, so they paint all news outlets with a broad brush.
“It was very refreshing to read those conversations that had high level of ethical reasoning rather than acting like we’re kids in candy store and someone just threw a bunch of bubblegum at us,” Culver said.
‘What really matters’
In an environment where anyone can leak any information they want anonymously with virtually no consequences, journalistic ethics are in a unique bind where most news outlets are left behind if they don’t cover a hack, yet their instincts tell them the information is fishy or not newsworthy.
And if journalists ignore ethical red flags surrounding hacked information, they may only add to the damage. Culver points again to the Ashley Madison hack as an example.
Is it news that a prominent infidelity website was hacked? Probably, but Culver said it’s debatable whether outlets were obligated to write detailed stories on individual users, like Gawker did with Josh Duggar.
“Some outlets published stories that focused on individuals that are harder to justify than others that used info to cover how many of those accounts were fabricated,” Culver said. “News organizations need to think very carefully when they’re weighing what really matters within (hacked) information.”
The question then becomes not if, but how the media handles hacked information. As hacking becomes more common, experts say journalists may need to position themselves not as news breakers, but news interpreters, telling the public if and why leaked information is important rather than relying on the novelty of hacking to be newsworthy by itself.
“There is a point where you don’t negotiate with terrorists, but it’s sort of a weird Catch-22 because in these situations, journalism can act almost as a cleanser that dispels myths,” Seaman said. “It’s not just about reporting everything just because this happened. It’s about journalists can coming in and saying, ‘Here’s what was really in those DNC emails.’”
However hacking keeps trying to influence the news industry and society in general, Clark and Culver say there is no replacement for good, old-fashioned news judgment — for both journalists and readers — to be critical of why hackers choose to release certain information.
“Any time you’re receiving information, you have to think about the motivations of the source,” Culver said. “That’s true whether it’s a hacker or the dramatic sliding of a manila envelope under the door.”