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The Sony Hacks Raises Journalism Ethics Issues

The events surrounding the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment have unfolded like a soap opera. It started with glowing red skeletons appearing on Sony employees’ computer screens. A slew of email hacks, the release of social security information, and threats of violent action followed, and eventually twisted Sony’s executive’s arms enough to get the self-proclaimed “Guardians of Peace” exactly what they wanted. Sony initially cancelled the release of “The Interview,” but the movie will now play in select theaters.

SONY

While it may have been ill-advised, Sony was free to make a movie about assassinating Kim Jong Un. So when Sony implored journalists to refrain from publishing material received by the hackers, an explosive conversation about the freedom of speech, moral obligation, and journalistic integrity ensued.

The question of whether to disseminate something obtained by illegal means is not easy for journalists, even when the information is of vital public interest and the motive is to stop wrongdoing (such as the National Security Agency surveillance revelations from Edward Snowden that exposed government actions that betrayed official statements and defied constitutional protections). The lines get blurrier in cases like the Sony hack, when the motive is extortion or profit, and the content is a private correspondence in a personal or corporate context.

Here, my opinion on the release of the data is irrelevant. I do think it’s important, however, to dissect both sides of the argument. Journalists had to make a tough call in determining whether to release the info. It’s a dilemma that’s not at all dissimilar from the ethical crises that PR pros experience. Here are the arguments for and against releasing the information. While the release itself is something for reporters to debate, discussing the pros and cons is a good exercise for PR pros.

the-interview

Argument 1: The first Amendment reigns

Sony’s cancellation of “The Interview” could be seen as verifying terrorist actions. Similarly, restricting First Amendment rights sets a bad precedent. At the end of the day, when Sony’s super-lawyer, David Boies, threatened journalists with legal action if they published leaked material, it was an attempt at censorship.

It is a journalist’s job to assess the news value of whatever comes across his desk. Take that choice away, and the American media becomes that much more constrained and that much less effective as a watchdog. The Sony hack has embarrassed a lot of celebrities and studio executives. It would be a lot more embarrassing if the press were more concerned with Hollywood’s discomfort than with doing its job.

Argument 2: Not newsworthy, not news

Journalists have an ethical responsibility to report only on material considered newsworthy, and most of the information that has been widely circulated is hardly newsworthy.

Of course, news outlets should cover the story of the hack itself, the effect on Sony, the question of how it happened, and who’s responsible. This is a big and legitimate news story. But when it comes to exploiting the fruits of the digital break-in, journalists should think long and hard about the ethics of publishing that material. Are emails between those at the studio citing petty celebrity gossip, racially-tinged jokes, and backstage back-stabbing really newsworthy? No, and writing stories culled from Sony’s private data is giving the hackers what they want.

The events of the Sony hacking scandal shed a glaring light on the blurred lines of journalist moral code, and we, as producers of public content, are faced with an important question: Where is the line between ensuring the public is informed and upholding journalistic integrity?