We’d like to believe that ethics and morality are the founding pillars of good journalism, and in the grand scheme of things, I truly believe they are. But when leaked, private information becomes a journalist’s only source, those moral pillars often seem to crumble.
According to an article written for the Columbia Journalism Review, in 2015 a group of hackers called the Impact Team decided to leak information from an online dating website called Ashley Madison. Ashley Madison wasn’t just any old dating website––it was specifically made for married people looking to have affairs.
The leaked data included names, birthdates, emails, and in some cases, addresses of 32 million unfaithful partners looking to spice up their lives.
Not long after the data breach, articles and radio shows started spewing out criticisms of well-known figures exploited on the site like Josh Duggar and several White House officials. Some newsroom executives however, opted to take a step back and refrain from using the pilfered data as a credible source.
This is where the moral dilemma of ethical journalism comes into play: Does the freedom of press within the First Amendment protect against infringement of one’s privacy?
The stories written about the users weren’t libelous; There was solid proof of user activity. Lives however, were certainly damaged as a result of the breach, making defamation seem like a possibility.
You could spend an entire day debating over who’s more corrupt: the disloyal husbands and wives of Ashley Madison or the skillfully evil hackers who stole private information from thousands of users, but the journalists in the situation play a slightly different role of the messenger in this case. The journalists didn’t hijack or obtain the information in an illegal way, and they certainly didn’t partake in any unfaithful activity. Arguably, that information was out there whether or not they decided to report it to the greater public.
Freedom for the Thought That We Hate by Anthony Lewis discusses similar moral dilemmas as the “fourth branch of privacy law, publication of truthful but embarrassing facts.”
Chapter 5, “Freedom and Privacy,” mentions several California Supreme Court cases in which individuals attempted to sue publications for damages after they released facts like sexual orientation and past run-ins with the law. In 1975 for instance, Oliver Sipple saved the President from an assassination attempt, however the San Francis Chronicle instead focused their story on Sipple as a gay man. Sipple sued the paper unsuccessfully because the court found his sexual orientation not to be private information.
While each case is different throughout history, there are common opinions from both the press and the higher courts. “The press has urged the Supreme Court to hold that it may always publish the truth, no matter how much it may trouble someone,” but the Supreme Court seems to vary case by case on whether or not the press has truly acted in the name of “public interest.”
Ultimately, the Supreme Court has failed in creating a federal statute that protects privacy interests within the First Amendment. Rather than create a blanket protection, they’ve chosen to decide most scenarios based on damages, truthfulness, and how ethically information was obtained––making cases rely entirely on timely justice opinions instead of Constitutional interpretation.
So was the Ashley Madison case one of ethical journalism? Did it provide helpful information to the public that outweighed the nature of privacy infringement?
Whether the answer to those questions are yes or no (and in this situation, I’m thinking probably no), it’s still true information. The press has a right to bring that truth to light no matter how embarrassing it may be.
Andrew Wallenstein put it well in an article on data leaks published by the Variety: “Journalism is, in some sense, permissible thievery. We occasionally catch wind of what our subjects would rather us not know, and we don’t hesitate to report it if it contributes to an understanding of what we’re writing about.”