One of the most vital questions in journalism is, "Should I write this piece?"
Not "can I." "Should I."
This question doesn't seem to get asked much anymore. Perhaps this stems from a desperation to be heard and seen in today's cacophonous digital environment, or the urgency to get things published before the competition. Or maybe it's just a sign that the mainstream media possesses a decaying ethical backbone.
There were two instances in recent news that brought this to mind. The first: A 13-year-old hacker succeeded in breaking into CIA Director John Brennan’s personal email account, and those emails were unceremoniously dumped into the vast expanses of the Internet by way of WikiLeaks, a self-proclaimed "journalistic" not-for-profit known for spilling classified information—typically gotten by fraudulent or surreptitious means—onto the Internet for unchecked public consumption.
Some might view this as a thumb in the eye to the "establishment," a protest against a government known for violating personal privacy by way of the Patriot Act and NSA data collection, essentially saying, "There. How do you like it when it's done to you?" I take issue with this notion.
First, this wasn't an official email account. This is a man's personal emails, which included everything from Brennan's wife's social security number to his children's names, addresses, and phone numbers. This has nothing to do with government transparency, this is, quite simply, the very thing opponents to domestic surveillance and invasive government despise.
It's reckless endangerment. It's targeting an individual and forcing him to submit to the will of the faceless masses of the world. There's no telling what kind of personal damage this could do to Brennan and his family, and no matter what you think of the man or his career, that's just wrong.
There's not a drop of journalistic integrity or human decency involved in the decision to leak these documents. You'd expect that from the 13-year-old who stole them in the first place. You would expect better from those who claim to be part of a "journalistic organization." There's clearly been no effort made on the part of WikiLeaks to look over the documents and disseminate only those that wouldn't endanger anyone's safety. This isn't patriotism, it's digital thuggery.
The second piece of news that struck me as a clear example of disregarding the "should I publish this" publishing prerequisite is this piece by The Intercept, revealing that the Pentagon used a Christian missionary NGO to penetrate and conduct espionage against North Korea.
According to the site, "The revelation that the Pentagon used an NGO and unwitting humanitarian volunteers for intelligence gathering is the result of a months-long investigation by The Intercept. In the course of the investigation, more than a dozen current and former military and intelligence officials, humanitarian aid workers, missionaries, U.S. officials, and former HISG staffers were interviewed. The U.S. government officials who were familiar with the Pentagon operation and HISG’s role asked for anonymity because discussing classified military and intelligence matters would put them at risk of prosecution."
Now, anyone who has read my other articles on this site knows how I feel about relying on anonymous sources for stories of this magnitude. It's a dangerously slippery slope, and could boil down to a "he-said, she-said" situation that only serves to besmirch reputations on both sides of the issue without giving any certain answers.
But beyond that, why would anyone think publishing this is a good idea? Anyone with an iota of knowledge about North Korea and the Jong-un regime knows that revealing the actions of the Pentagon and this NGO will inevitably lead to the murder of North Korean civilians suspected of participating in or supporting this effort, as well as endangering future NGO workers—many of whom could be Americans.
The Intercept writes, "[This action] violates international principles and puts legitimate aid and development workers at risk." Unfortunately, that's precisely what this article is doing by calling attention to it. The author of this piece no doubt views revealing this information as watchdog journalism meant to keep the government in line, but to what end? All they've done by exposing this operation is compromise U.S. counterproliferation and nuclear monitoring efforts meant to keep the DPRK from blowing up their corner of the world, which they've already made clear on more than one occasion is at the top of their "Honey Do" list.
According to the article, “'We needed collection devices, spoofers—used to disrupt North Korean military devices or radio signals—and [equipment] to measure nuclear anomalies,' the same former military official told me. The military hardware also included shortwave radios that could be used to help a downed pilot to escape in the event of a future conflict with North Korea."
Radios and monitoring equipment. Hardly the makings of human-rights abuses or something equally heinous in need of exposure. (Unlike the Jong-un regime, which has been known for committing despicable acts of violence against its own people for years.)
Those at The Intercept may need to do some deep introspection to consider what publishing something like this article could lead to. They may very well end up with blood on their hands. Again, it comes down to asking that crucial initial question: "Should we publish this?"
Both of these cases represent what I would consider irresponsible journalism. It's easier now than it's ever been to get away with sloppy, feckless reporting. A journalist, now more than ever, needs to be in perfect sync with their moral compass and their personal code of ethics.
(Featured image courtesy of wired.com)