Reporting on Hacked Information

Wikileaks has emerged as one of the main organizations that hacks information for public display.
Photo via Wikileaks/Creative Commons

Most everyone can say that they’ve had something hacked or stolen from them. Whether it was a wallet in a foreign country, a house or car getting burglarized or an email getting spammed, most people have or know someone who has been the victim of a crime like the one’s mentioned above.


Hacked information was also crucial during this past election cycle. During the 2016 election, one of the most vital pieces of information that affected the race were the developments disclosed after Wikileakes hacked Hillary Clinton’s email. Clearly the information disclosed from the hack was important, but the fact that the information was hacked also raises major concerns about privacy and questions of how such information should be reported on.


The hacking of Clinton’s information begs the question, how should prominent media outlets report on vital information about the election even if the information was obtained via questionable circumstances? Should they and how should they note the fact the information was hacked? Should they not? Or should they confirm their hacked information?


The answer is that they can’t avoid publishing vital information even if it was questionably obtained, yet in situations where hacked information is reported on, it’s integral to report on how the documents were obtained before publishing their details.


“I mean, part of the problem is if you get a major treasure trove of documents, the impulse is to go see what you can find that seems newsworthy and post it as quickly as you can,” David Folkenflik of NPR wrote in a NPR article published in mid-September. “And I think that has to be done with great care and thoughtfulness.


One of the issues with reporting on hacked information is not fully knowing the source from which it was first obtained. Another is rationalizing the fact that the information was released unbeknownst to the person or organization that the details were hacked from.


The latter is not a reason to withhold a hacked piece of data. But media outlets should first confirm the source of where the hacked information is from.


When Clinton’s emails were first hacked, major news outlets first had to confirm the source of the hack before publishing stories.


When the Washington Post obtained video of Donald Trump and Billy Bush in the now infamous access Hollywood tape, they waited almost four hours before running the story, checking with various sources and lawyers to ensure the validity of the video.


By publishing a piece of hacked information without doing any other additional source confirmation, media outlets run the risk of being completely misled.

Media outlets should first confirm the source of where the hacked information is from.

News outlets must, as Folkenflik notes above, handle hacked information with care. They must first be aware that they are not fake news, and recognize that getting the story right is more important than publishing pieces of information first.


“When dealing with documents obtained under murky circumstances, news organizations should follow standard procedure and question the motives of their sources,” Helen Lewis of Nieman Reports writes.

While it is undoubtedly unethical for news sites to hack people or organizations looking for insights or sources, as Peter Preston of The Guardian notes, “It’s the job of editors to publish, not keep secrets.”


News outlets shouldn’t keep hacked information a secret, especially if it details vital information. Instead though they should handle it with care and be aware that when dealing with hacked information they must be especially careful and attempt to confirm the source from where the information is obtained.


In many situations this election they handled reporting on hacked information incredibly well, and treated it as just another hat tip. But in the future if sources do not do their homework after the fact, then they may lose credibility and more importantly misinform the public.


That’s a crime that no one can afford right now.



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