To Publish or Not to Publish

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

CNN broke news on Tuesday afternoon that U.S. intelligence officials briefed President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump on “allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.”

The story didn’t provide many details about the potentially compromising information, because CNN “has not independently corroborated the specific allegations.” BuzzFeed soon published the set of documents containing the unverified allegations, however.

Journalists and others on Twitter soon questioned the ethics of BuzzFeed posting unverified information. President-elect Trump also posted a link on Twitter to a story chastising BuzzFeed for its actions.

The unfortunate truth is that publishing hacked and unverified information – especially any involving public officials – often falls into the gray areas of journalism ethics. Arguments can be made on both sides of the debate.

People may argue that the dearth of details in CNN’s story led people to speculate about the specifics of the allegations. BuzzFeed’s decision to publish could be seen as a way to squash that speculation and show people the scope of the allegations.

From the standpoint of a journalism ethics purist: journalists should not publish or broadcast unverified information.

The value of journalism rests in its ability to provide answers and credible information. The public expects journalists and news organizations to say whether a piece of information is true or false. No value exists in throwing unverified information into the world.

More than ever before, journalists and news organizations need to tell the public what is and is not accurate information.

Yet, the public is bombarded on an almost daily basis with unverified information from news organizations. Breaking news stories often come with the disclaimer that the information isn’t confirmed. Emails allegedly hacked from the Democratic National Committee were reported on and carried similar caveats.

Journalists who want their profession to be trusted, respected and profitable need to hold themselves and their peers to its best practices, which are spelled out in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.

The actions of news organizations involved with this story will continue to be debated over the coming days, but the more important issue moving forward is that these allegations are now out in the world. Responsible, thorough and thoughtful journalists are needed to inform people about this information and its worth.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chairperson of the Society of Professional Journalists‘ Ethics Committee.

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  • Carrie Buchanan

    I agree with Buzzfeed’s approach because (a) they made it very clear that the documents were unverified and contained errors and (b) they explained very clearly why they were releasing them. They also included reaction from the Trump organization. This helps public discussion more than hinting at allegations that are not explained. It is transparent. They also mention that these documents have been circulating for weeks.

  • Donald_W_Meyers

    This is an ethical conundrum. On the one hand, it’s not fake news in that there is an actual report, it has been circulated at the highest levels of government and was part of an intelligence briefing. It also contains serious allegations that should be addressed. But there are questions about its accuracy, and possibly its provenance. Putting it out there without context might be playing into the hands of someone who has released it for less-than-noble purposes, especially if it the report is a fabrication. Ideally, it’s existence should be reported, with the caveats about its veracity, and explain what intelligence officials are doing about the allegations raised in it.

  • Meittimies

    Given how nowadays “verification” means quoting another newspaper no matter how wrong they might have the facts just shows how much deeper the problems of modern lazy journalism goes.

  • MosesZD

    My grandmother was a reporter and columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. She’d roll over in her grave if she saw the absolute garbage journalism of today.

    There was nothing there but a 4chan troll Buzzfeed fell for. I can only they’re sued into bankruptcy like Gawker.

  • Jon Snow

    It is actually fake news.

    “Fake news websites deliberately publish hoaxes, propaganda, and disinformation, using social media to drive web traffic and amplify their effect.”

    There’s no question buzzfeed actually did that.

    Buzzfeed are the hands that released it for less than noble purposes. Source: buzzfeeds coverage of the entire election cycle.

  • Russell Smith

    My J-school profs would have those red pens at ready, and would loudly insist, so that all of Smith Hall could hear, how they expected to run unverified news under their watch. The humiliation would be real and well-deserved.

  • mikchael e ingles

    16% what else is to be said after reading this diatribe.

  • WriterLDP

    Really wish this were higher up in the essay:
    From the standpoint of a journalism ethics purist: journalists should not publish or broadcast unverified information.
    The value of journalism rests in its ability to provide answers and credible information. The public expects journalists and news organizations to say whether a piece of information is true or false. No value exists in throwing unverified information into the world.
    More than ever before, journalists and news organizations need to tell the public what is and is not accurate information.

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