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.
— Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) January 11, 2017
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.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2017
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.