Archive for the ‘Hacked and Leaked Data’ Category


Learning From a Leak

Caught a drip falling from the tap in the kitchen

Journalists and news organizations must work to protect their sources even when no formal promises or agreements are made between the two parties.


Missteps in handling and reporting classified information may jeopardize the identity of sources and ultimately dissuade other people from leaking important information that may be vital to the public.

The U.S. Justice Department today announced charges against a government contractor for leaking classified information to a news outlet about an hour after The Intercept published a classified document from the National Security Agency.

The document dated early May “was provided anonymously” and details – among other things – an alleged Russian-led cyberattack on a U.S. voting software supplier before the November presidential election, according to The Intercept’s story.

The Justice Department’s affidavit says the news outlet – assumed to be The Intercept – contacted the government agency on May 30 and provided a copy of the classified document. The agency examined the document and noticed “the pages of the intelligence reporting appeared to be folded and/or creased, suggesting they had been printed and hand-carried out of a secured space.

The crease and/or fold was enough to steer investigators toward employees with physical access to the information, according to the affidavit. Of the six people who printed the report, only one had email communications with the news outlet.

As far as I can tell from online news reports and the Justice Department’s affidavit, the source’s arrest cannot be directly blamed on The Intercept’s decision to turn over a copy of the leaked document. Investigators may have been able to identify the alleged leaker due to email or other activity.

The affidavit does suggest The Intercept’s decision made the government’s investigation easier, however.

Journalists and news organizations should not hand over copies of leaked documents to the government, as pointed out on Twitter by Emily Bell, who is the director of Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism in New York.

The main reason for withholding those documents from the government is to protect the source’s identity. As happened in this case, investigators may be able to find clues that lead to the source – such as a crease, fold, watermark or other marking.

The situation Bell cites in her Twitter post resulted in a legal case between The Guardian and the UK government over leaked documents that contained markings that would identify the source.

In its nightly media newsletter, CNN cites a statement from The Intercept: The NSA document was provided to us anonymously. The Intercept has no knowledge of the identity of the source.

The statement seems to conflict with the Justice Department’s affidavit that suggests the alleged leaker had some communication with the news outlet.

News organizations usually have some communication with the sources of leaked information. In those cases, the Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics is clear that journalists should “keep the promises they make.”

The Code is less direct when sources simply mail information to reporters without earlier or follow-up communications. Yet, journalists and news organizations still have an implicit responsibility to do all they can to protect sources of the information.

Journalists and news organizations have a responsibility to minimize harm that should be considered when reporting, writing and ultimately publishing or broadcasting information.

Additionally, leakers need to know journalists on the receiving end of information will treat those documents with the appropriate care and won’t unwittingly turn over information that jeopardizes their safety. If people can’t trust journalists to do all they can to protect people’s identities in these types of situations, leakers may think twice before sending potentially vital information to news organizations.

Beyond the news value of such leaks, it’s in the best interest of the country for people to leak information to responsible journalists and news organization instead of places like WikiLeaks.

Whether The Intercept unknowingly guided the U.S. government to its source is debatable at this point, but the situation an important reminder to other journalists and news organizations to be aware of their responsibilities throughout the news reporting process.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee.

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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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NJ Press Should Rally Against Unconstitutional Order

Screenshot illustration of The Trentonian’s website.

Journalism is a competitive business. Reporters and news organizations try to get scoops for praise or financial gain. Certain circumstances require cooperation and unity to prevail over those rivalries, however.

An injunction imposed by a New Jersey Superior Court Judge Craig Corson is currently preventing The Trentonian and its reporter Isaac Avilucea from reporting on a document issued by the state’s child protection agency. The case is complicated and sensitive, but Avilucea handled the story with care.

If there was ever a time for cooperation and unity to prevail among the press in New Jersey, it’s now.

The order against The Trentonian and Avilucea can’t be allowed to seep into the nation’s proverbial water supply and embolden judges across the country to impose similar unconstitutional restrictions on the press for every leaked government document.

Other news organizations and journalists in New Jersey and surrounding areas should show solidarity by responsibly covering the story at the heart of the document. A dozen or so ethically reported stories on the issue will show Judge Corson he cannot stop a valid news story from seeing the light of day.

Additionally, the editorial arms of news organizations should continue to show support for The Trentonian and Avilucea by explaining to their readers, viewers and listeners why prior restraint is unconstitutional and a blow to foundational elements of our democracy.

The Society of Professional Journalists states in its Code of Ethics that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough.

The Society and its professional chapter in New Jersey issued a statement this afternoon against the order.

As the Bill of Rights enshrines the freedoms of speech and press into the U.S. Constitution, so does the state constitution of New Jersey.

“Every person may freely speak, write and publish his sentiments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right,” according to the document. “No law shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech or of the press.”

The order of prior restraint levied against The Trentonian is not only an attack on core American values; it’s also an insult to those New Jerseyans hold close to their hearts.

Journalists in New Jersey should realize the danger this order poses to their news organizations, colleagues around the country and democracy. They should diligently work to make sure this story is not silenced and this order does not stand.


Andrew M. Seaman is the ethics committee chairperson for the Society of Professional Journalists.

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NBC Owes Viewers Explanations About Trump Tape

Photo Illustration of NBC's Mobile Homepage 10/08/16

Photo Illustration of NBC’s Mobile Homepage 10/08/16

A tape released Friday sent the 2016 U.S. presidential election into chaos, and led to prominent Republicans calling for Donald Trump, the party’s nominee, to drop out of the race. The tape should also prompt a serious discussion about the editorial oversight of NBC News.

The tape, which was first published by The Washington Post, exposes a 2005 conversation between Trump and Billy Bush, who was then co-anchor of Access Hollywood – distributed by a subsidiary of NBCUniversal. Bush is now “co-host of the third hour of NBC News’ ‘TODAY,’ according to the show’s website.

Sources at NBC told CNN’s Brian Stelter that Access Hollywood and its news division were working on stories about the 2005 conversation before The Washington Post published its story. Since any news stories about the conversation from NBC would also severely harm one of the network’s stars, it’s important to remain skeptical about those reports.

Even if Stelter’s sources are correct, NBC should realize – at the very least – the cross pollination of talent between its subsidiaries is harming the reputation of the organization’s news division. At most, NBC News’ fundamental journalism mission has been usurped by the larger organization’s bottom line.

As someone who often speaks out when news organizations violated the basic ethical principles of journalism, I often choose not to write about violations involving TODAY or ABC’s Good Morning America. Those shows have a long history of cringe-worthy ethical violations, and cries of foul fall on deaf ears.

Remaining questions about the existence of the 2005 tape  point to more systemic issues at NBC, however. For example, why are NBC News employees colluding with Access Hollywood? Also, does NBC News know of any similar conversations caught on tape for other NBC programs, such as The Apprentice?

There are also legitimate questions surrounding Bush’s future role within NBC News. For example, will he be back Monday on TODAY? I don’t think bringing Bush back before the end of the 2016 election can be viewed as a responsible decision.

People who get their news from NBC deserve answers and explanations to these questions. They also deserve an assurance that NBC News will be independent from other divisions of the parent organization. Until then, I think it’s justifiable to remain skeptical about the editorial oversight of an organization that allows its entertainment and journalism arms to regularly intermingle at the expense of the American people.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chairperson of the Society’s ethics committee.

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The Times and Trump’s Taxes

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

The New York Times on Saturday published excerpts from Donald Trump’s 1995 income tax returns. The decades-old documents give insight into the financial history of the Republican nominee for the White House.

Throughout the campaign, Trump repeatedly declined to release his tax returns. In an email to the Times, his lawyer claimed the publication of the records is “illegal because Mr. Trump has not authorized the disclosure of any of his tax returns.”

While I’m not a lawyer or expert on tax law, The Washington Post previously reported that “federal law prohibits ‘any person’ from printing, publishing or soliciting tax-return information without the taxpayer’s authorization.”

If true, the Times may find itself in a courtroom in the near future.

The words legal and ethical are not synonyms, however. What is legal is not always ethical, and what is ethical is not always legal.

In my view, the Times made a sound ethical decision by publishing Trump’s tax returns.

The Society’s Code of Ethics suggests that journalism is often a balancing act. News organizations may need to take extraordinary actions if the resulting material is so beneficial and vital to the public.

Journalism is the foundation of democracy and the documents published by the Times provide needed information for people heading to voting booths in almost one month.

While people may argue over the legality of what the Times did regarding Trump’s tax returns, the paper appears to have made the ethical choice.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.

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Journalists Can Responsibly Use Hacked Data

Ashley Madison HackStories are starting to trickle out of the massive hack of Ashley Madison, which is touted as a dating website for people who are already married.


The hack exposed the information of an estimated 30 million people.

Obviously, people are hesitant to report and read stories based on a hack, because the data are stolen and offer little value to the public. These are fair and rational arguments, but I disagree with both.

It’s a very dangerous precedent for journalists to ignore information on the basis of whether or not it’s stolen from the owner.  As long as journalists were not involved in the actual theft of the material, they should feel free to take a look at the information to see if it’s of interest to the public.

In this case, the data is from a website that facilitates the affairs of married people. One may argue that there is no public interest in the personal lives of anyone who pops up in the data. In general, this argument is valid, but should not be generalized to the entire data dump.

For example, there is no public interest in John Smith from down the street having an affair. The situations changes when John Smith is using his government email address and/or credit card to manage his website membership, however.

The bottom line is that journalists should feel free to mine the data from hacks for information that should be elevated to the public, but those stories must be responsibly reported.

In this case, journalists should verify information and allow people accused of having an account a chance to respond to allegations. Journalists must also explain why they believe people should know about the information. The explanation must be better than to simply pander to lurid curiosity.

Finally, journalists and news organization should aim to minimize harm. Minimizing harm does not mean journalists should simply avoid reporting on important stories. All journalism, in general, creates some level of harm – ranging from discomfort to mental distress. The good of the information being brought to light should outweigh the harms.

As in many cases, the question is not whether a story should be done. The question is how to responsibly report a story.


Andrew M. Seaman is the Society’s ethics chairman. He lives and works in New York City.

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