The 24-hour news cycle during an election is its own type of arms race: media outlets all want the story, they want the story first and they need to match the information of their competitors in order to win over an evolving readership. Journalism has always been motivated by this kind of competition. However, now that the news isn’t always punctuated by a print cycle, and is made boundless by the Internet, the pace has been accelerated and certain considerations are becoming sloppy. Now add the fact that new documents, WikiLeaks, have been added into the category of “what news competitors have in their arsenal” and the information arms race is brought to a level that is not only competitive, but potentially unethical.
The media matters a lot in any election. Some people criticize this and some people celebrate it, but it has been proven again and again to be true. The media dictates what we pay attention to, and sets the tone in which we pay attention. Lately, the media has been engaging in a relatively new kind of reporting, turning to thousands of WikiLeaks emails have been hacked, stolen, sifted through and published. The extraction of these e-mails was sketchy and most likely illegal, and increasing CIA evidence implies that Russia hacked and leaked the emails in order to influence our presidential election. And now it’s online for anyone to see, with the media acting as the most efficient agent of that information. The media’s secondhand publication of this stolen information is legally sound, morally dubious and difficult to question, because we’re all too distracted reading it.
I spoke to a reporter who said that, if one of his colleagues hacked into someone else’s computer and published their stolen information, they would not only be fired, but most likely arrested and prosecuted. The only difference here is that there is a middleman doing the hacking. However, that’s hardly redeeming considering the fact that the middleman is international hackers with ulterior motives regarding our election. In this situation, the middleman doesn’t absolve a publication of responsibility, but instead just complicates things more. This is something new that we should think about, even if we still come to the conclusion that WikiLeaks’s findings are salient enough to to continue to publish and read.
The decision to publish WikiLeaks is difficult to look at ethically, because it’s the responsibility of the media to report newsworthy findings. This isn’t a moral condemnation of the media outlets, but an appeal for us all to zoom out and look at the new trends we are setting, and the way those trends are narrowing the realm of what we are allowed, as American citizens, to keep private. We are setting a precedent, both for how we allow foreign powers to intervene in our election, and for how we use the election to justify the intrusion of privacy and the idea that nothing — not emails, pictures, campaign strategies or private conversations — is sacred.
As a publication, you don’t necessarily have time to consider the ethical pluses and minuses of relaying Russia’s information dump to your readers. If the Washington Post has already done it, and your other competitors have already done it, of course you’re going to hop on the train; it makes sense competitively, and economically. As a reader, we aren’t always considering or understanding the decisions that we make either, in part because we expect reputable sources to make some of these decisions for us. When all news publications are relaying the information, the practice is normalized. I don’t question CNN when I see that they’re running a headline on Podesta’s emails, because it’s news. When CNN runs transcript from a sketchy speech that Hillary gave, their editorial authority indicates to me, and other viewers, that it is relevant, and fair to publish. But this isn’t necessarily correct.
This might come off as overly sympathetic to those who engage in wrongdoing, and get caught by WikiLeaks. It’s tempting to think, ‘if politicians don’t want private information to be made public, they shouldn’t live private lives that they need to keep secret in the first place.’ And this is a good point. But think about your own phone, and whether or not this would work for you. Someday, some of you might decide to run for office. And if you do, in a high profile election, you may be subject to the same journalistic standards that you — and the media outlets that dispense news to you — are setting right now, as I write this. That’s not something to agree with or disagree with; its simply something to think about. Even if we as readers collectively decide we’re okay with a narrowed private sphere, we need to go off autopilot long enough think about it.
Jacqueline Groskaufmanis is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Dissent appears alternate Mondays this semester.