The ethical implications of reporting with stolen information

An undercovered moment occurred in last night’s debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton when moderator Chris Wallace asked Clinton about a speech she gave to a Brazilian bank in which she said, “my dream is a hemispheric common market with open trade and open borders.”

The report of the speech came from one of several emails released by WikiLeaks. Clinton deflected the question and instead, cited the fact that U.S. intelligence agencies believe WikiLeaks’ treasure came directly from hacking by Russia, which pushed Trump into a segment where he appeared to be cheering Russian president Vladimir Putin, a strategy that doesn’t typically lead to being elected president of the United States.

It was only later that Clinton addressed the email, saying she was referring to energy.

That’s as close as Clinton came to acknowledging that the emails being leaked are legitimate.

“What are the ethical implications in reporting on stolen information without reporting where it came from and why it was leaked?” Amy Conners, of Minneapolis asked NPR’s ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen in one of several emails listeners have sent to the network questioning whether — or at least how — reporters should write about evidence that has not been verified.

As usual, she provides a look at the behind-the-scenes ethical debates that take place in a newsroom.

Newsroom deliberations about how to treat hacked information are getting to be somewhat routine, so much so that Nieman Reports took a deep dive into the ethics of publishing stolen data last year. As Nieman notes, WikiLeaks began dumping confidential material a decade ago; Edward Snowden’s disclosures about U.S. intelligence surveillance came in 2013; and Sony Corp. was subjected to an embarrassing exposure of its internal workings when hackers put online some of that company’s internal information in 2014.

And of course NPR and other news organizations routinely report on leaked information (although not necessarily stolen) from confidential sources, including Trump’s 1995 tax returns a couple weeks ago, using the argument that the reports are in the public interest.

In the case of the most recent emails, there doesn’t seem to be any theft of intellectual property, as was the case in the Sony leaks. The contents of the emails came up in the latest presidential candidate debate, and the stories NPR has published so far are arguably indeed in the public interest (although one could make the case for either side regarding the email that dealt with how best to cook risotto). On the other hand, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who is up for re-election, said he will “not discuss any issue that has become public solely on the basis of WikiLeaks,” because, “As our intelligence agencies have said, these leaks are an effort by a foreign government to interfere with our electoral process, and I will not indulge in it.”

Jensen says she wonders how the ethics would be considered if the information hadn’t been related to a presidential election while acknowledging that NPR, for example, could hardly ignore the leaked emails.

“I believe most of NPR’s disclaimers so far have been very clear and admirable,” she writes. “[NPR’s standards and practices editor Mark]Memmott called the situation ‘awkward,’ which may not be satisfying to some listeners and readers, but it is an accurate reflection, in my opinion, of the dilemma that journalists are facing in this case.