I would like to welcome TechCrunch to the world of actual journalism. Find a story, verify info, interview sources, write story, fact check, publish, repeat.
Here’s the quick background: TechCrunch obtained multiple documents from an alleged hacker who had broken into Twitter employee’s email accounts, Google Documents (There’s a reason it’s not compliant, but that’s a different issue) and other documents and information. TechCrunch verified w/Twitter and its lawyers the accuracy of the documents and even interviewed them. Then they published some of the documents. They were even kind enough to redact personal information.
From the days of muckraking and yellow journalism, obtained documents have been one of the best sources of great information for reporters. The methods and tactics used to acquire these documents range from the legal (Washington Public Records Act, Federal Freedom of Information Act) to the potentially unethical.
But here’s an important step that separates journalist from sensationalist: The journalist attempts to verify the information before publishing. The Sensationalist does not.
As a holder of an actual, real-life journalism degree, I sat through hours of press law and have filled out my fair share of information requests. I have also obtained information through anonymous sources or obtained information in other ways. And I used those documents. But after verifying on my own.
The right to publish
Now, the debate over whether or not TechCrunch should have published or not is broken into two parts:
- Is the information newsworthy?
- Is the information “off limits?”
The newsworthiness discussion is for another day. I am focused on the ethics involved in publishing the documents. TechCrunch absolutely acted within the boundaries of accepted journalistic ethics in publishing those documents. If it had simply published the entire .zip file without making an attempt to check facts or redact personal information, it would have been very out of line.
Instead, it looked for the information it deemed “newsworthy” and ran with it. To recap, it verified the information with Twitter, attempted to elicit on-the-record comment from Twitter and published the information that was applicable to the story it accompanied. TechCrunch even solicited comment from third-party companies named in the documents.
One could also make the argument that Ev and Biz and some of the Twitter team are “Limited Purpose Public Figures.” This means that some of their information is subject to federal and state open records laws and that their expectations of privacy are a bit different than the average citizen.
In this case, the combination of a good journalist and a good lawyer are difficult to beat.
Should they have published
Well, in my opinion yes and no. If TechCrunch wants to use this as a standard for applying journalistic ethics to its reporting (coverage?), then great. But the fact is that TechCrunch is a blog. Its writers express opinion and insert themselves into the stories they are writing. Independant sources are a rarity, as is interviews with the subjects they’re writing about.
I’ve written about the difference between blogger and journalist before, and I think it is completely applicable here. And this gets right to the heart of the debate. If the New York Times had published those documents, would we have even flinched?
I’m sure my opinion is different than some, so tell me what you think.