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  • 07.20.09

Twitter’s Published Stolen Documents Raises Ethics Questions

“Journalists should report on what people need to know, not what people want to know” the late Walter Cronkite once said. Journalism has certainly changed since Cronkite retired. The most established newspapers in history are struggling to survive and come up with a viable financial model. Bloggers and citizen journalists are carving out niches and redefining what makes a breaking news story. The lines between blogger and journalist are blurred and as a result we have run into ethics issues.

“Journalists should report on what people need to know, not what people want to know” the late Walter Cronkite once said. Journalism has certainly changed since Cronkite retired. The most established newspapers in history are struggling to survive and come up with a viable financial model. Bloggers and citizen journalists are carving out niches and redefining what makes a breaking news story. The lines between blogger and journalist are blurred and as a result we have run into ethics issues.

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On July 14th, the editors at TechCrunch, along with several other blogs and reporters were sent 310 confidential and personal documents belonging to Twitter and Twitter employees.  The documents contained Twitter’s financial projections, business plans, and executive meeting notes. TechCrunch struggled with their decision to publish them or not but Editor Michael Arrington said “a few of the documents have so much news value that we think it’s appropriate to publish them.”

News value? Or increased website visits? TechCrunch went too far by publishing stolen property. Don’t get me wrong, curiosity got the best of me and I read the documents TechCrunch published. I even publicly commented that I was surprised to see that there was no mention of Twitter hiring a communications or customer support team, which they so desperately need. Perhaps that was in another memo. However, did I or anyone else not affiliated with Twitter need to see it? No. Nothing TechCrunch printed was news the public needed to know. Hundreds of TechCrunch’s readers had a strong reaction and many commented that they found TechCrunch’s decision sleazy and not ethical.

“This is information that you obtained not through research but through a hacker…You shouldn’t be posting any of this information online. Poor show Arrington, poor show.”

Others commented that publishing Twitter’s stolen internal memos leaked by a hacker sets a bad precedent and encourages hackers to continue stealing to grab media attention.

“If I were TechCrunch, I would be more concerned as to why a hacker would assume that we would publish this type of material, ” said Dee McCrorey a former freelance journalist and founder of the blog The Corporate Entrepreneur and the video blog Road to Innovation. TechCrunch could have chosen to not publish the material, but report that they had it and were deciding not to publish while raising the issue of security (and ethics). They might have been able to achieve the same end results while “keeping their hands” clean, so to speak.”

Branding expert Guy Kawasaki conducted a poll and asked people if they thought TechCrunch’s decision to release Twitter’s internal document was ethical. The poll read “Should TechCrunch publish internal documents stolen from Twitter?” Out of 1060 people, 74% said “No, some things are more important than page views.” 26% said “Yes, all is fair in love, war, and journalism”

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Kawasaki also openly criticized TechCrunch’s decision and even branded the poll with a classic Alltop headline that read – “For tech coverage with less stolen stuff, click HERE.

Jay Rosen commented on Twitter “It’s not a simple call. But the difference ‘tween “leaking” and “breaking and entering” seems pretty clear. At least to me.”

Despite all of the criticism directed at TechCrunch, Arrington said in a follow up post “We publish confidential information almost every day on TechCrunch. This is stuff that is also “stolen,” usually leaked by an employee or someone else close to the company, and the company is very much opposed to its publication. In the past we’ve received comments that this is unethical. And it certainly was unethical, or at least illegal…for the person who gave us the information and violated confidentiality and/or nondisclosure agreements. But on our end, it’s simply news.”

In today’s battle of who gets the most web traffic, do we just check our standards and publishing integrity at the door? Don’t ethics still count?

“I do believe as bloggers we have an individual responsibility to establish our ethical standards. Self-governance is particularly important for new media journalists given that there are no agreed-upon industry standards at this time,” said McCrorey. “Without self-governance, as bloggers we run the risk of eroding the power of new media and its ability to level the playing field. This becomes even tougher when the lines are blurring between entertainment, education, editorializing, and news while technology tools and apps are changing the rules.” 

About the author

Allyson has been named one of "Top Tech Titans" by the Washingtonian, one of the Most Influential Women In Tech by Fast Company and one of the top 30 women entrepreneurs to follow on Twitter by Forbes for her leadership role in technology and social media. As Founding Partner of Rad Campaign she leads the firm’s client and online strategic services.

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