The hack and leak of Colin Powell’s emails have brought with them a national conversation about journalistic ethics. At stake are the competing responsibilities for journalists to respect privacy on the one hand, and to inform the public of relevant ongoings on the other.
Powell’s emails, ostensibly hacked and leaked by Russian government forces, revealed incendiary comments about both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Known for maintaining a reserved and diplomatic approach, the indiscreet tone of Powell’s emails had the appeal of an unearthed and long suspected truth.
The news media responded to the leaked emails by plastering their content on talk shows and websites, accompanied by expert commentary and in depth political analyses. Line by line, readers, viewers, and listeners learned, with a sense of excitement and validation, what Colin Powell “really thinks.”
The leak itself exemplifies a privacy violation that Helen Nissenbaum calls a breach of contextual integrity. Powell wrote the emails in the context of informal communication between he and trusted individuals. The leak ripped the emails from that personal context and displaced them into public view. Powell’s emails were an expression of political opinion, the leak turned them into political commentary.
As the initial flurry over the leak began to settle, a telling meta-conversation emerged and continues to get play in the news cycle—a conversation by journalists, about journalistic ethics. At the center of the conversation is a question of the degree to which journalists exacerbated the breach of contextual integrity by publishing the emails and centralizing their content. This conversation was spearheaded by political commentator Dan Abrams, who apologized to Powell in a post on his political news site, Mediaite. Spreading the emails was unconscionable, Abrams acknowledged, and a generally unethical response to the initial privacy breach. Abrams’ public apology initiated a collective journalistic blush, in which the commentators who had pored over each line during their nightly newscasts and weekly op-eds offered a retrospective pause to consider if reporting on the emails was in fact an ethical decision. In these (late) moments of reflection, journalists articulated the grey area of their email reports, noted that sharing the email content did not meet the ethical ideal, but concluded that the emails were out there anyway, and so they may as well they had little choice but to report. Abrams, the original apologist, writes in his apologia post that his team ultimately reported on the emails first, because they were newsworthy and second, because not reporting would put them at a “competitive disadvantage.” Later, in an interview on CNN, Abrams and CNN’s Smerconish agreed that in the end, their journalistic duty required that they report on the emails due to the email’s status as “news,” and their jobs as journalists to report the news.
With rapid changes to the media landscape, this moment is indeed ripe for public ponderings about privacy and journalistic ethics. But let’s be clear, news organizations’ ongoing reflections about their reporting on the Powell emails are not an earnest exercise in ethical consideration. The emails presented an ethical quandary that the journalism community simply got wrong. The way they explain it away—under the guise of a journalistic responsibility to report—fundamentally mischaracterizes the nature of news and provides a weak and indefensible justification for unethical reporting practices that, I’m certain, journalists knew to be unethical from the beginning.
Journalists have the difficult job of reporting The News. This is more art than science. News is not a concrete object, but a cultivated subject. News is not some extraneous thing out there in the ether waiting for capture. News is not objective. Rather, news is whatever journalists, broadly conceived, decide to report on, coupled with the frame and style with which they choose to report. News is a delicate process of curation and cultivation, imbued with politics and editorial negotiations. Powell’s emails were news because the journalism community treated them as such.
This is not to say that journalists select and report stories based entirely on personal whim. On the contrary, there are significant events with relevance to local, national, and international audiences. The fact that Powell’s emails were hacked is an example of a relevant event—General Powell is a prominent political figure whose personal communications were infiltrated, quite possibly by a foreign government, potentially to influence the U.S. presidential elections. This is news. But the email hack itself is a qualitatively different story than that told through the content of the emails. While Powell’s hacked email is a newsworthy story of relevance, the content of his hacked emails is gossip to which the public was not meant to have access.
The hack was a serious privacy violation. The moment any news organization reported on the content of the emails, they became complicit, acting in accord with the nefarious actor(s) who instigated the breach.
The key motivation for reporting on the email content, as Abrams points out, is the competitive edge lost by not doing so. “Everyone else is doing it” justifies sharing Powell’s private communications only in the context of news-as-business, an idea antithetical to the journalistic ideal of public information and dialogue. If we generously accept that reporting on the content of Powell’s emails is a responsibility, then it is a corporate responsibility, not a journalistic one. The push to unethically violate Powell’s privacy is born of a responsibility to share-holders, advertisers, and executives who stand to lose revenue by reporting the story but omitting the gossip. It is not, as billed by the defensive journalism community, a service to the news consuming public.
Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis
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