What journalists should’ve learned about hacked material

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, makes an excellent point: shouldn’t the media be learning something from the way it reported the material stolen by Russia and used to influence the election in 2016?

In a Boston Globe essay, Jamieson points to this passage in the Mueller report:

“GRU (the Russian intelligence agency) officers using the DCLeaks persona gave certain reporters early access to archives of leaked files by sending them links and passwords to pages on the dcleaks.com website that had not yet become public.”

Those contacts came in July and September, before the Department of Homeland Security raised the alarm about the work of the Russians. But reporters said nothing, referring to the stolen material as “leaks” and crediting their release to WikiLeaks, and not the Russians.

“Among the press lapses at play during that period were inadequate disclosure of sources and sundering hacked statements from context,” she writes.

To assess the impact, let me offer a thought experiment. Suppose instead of declaring “We’ve learned from WikiLeaks, that you said this,” in the third debate, moderator Chris Wallace had said, “We’ve learned from WikiLeaks, which is an organization created by Clinton-antagonist Julian Assange, an operative she sought to prosecute for disclosing classified government documents.”

Or alternatively, “My next question is based on stolen Democratic materials, whose accuracy we have been unable to verify, gotten by Russian hackers through cyber-theft.”

Had such characterizations been top of mind, I suspect that reporters would have been more careful in their use of the pirated content and viewers more prone to ask, “Why would the Russians and Assange want to defeat the Democratic nominee?”

It’s time for journalists to create policies about the use of stolen information, she says.

“To ensure that past is not prologue, the nation’s news outlets would do well to promulgate policies regarding use of hacked materials that confirm that they will examine stolen, leaked material with care, tell their audiences whether it has been independently verified, and disclose relevant information about its origins,” she writes.

They won’t.

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