Critical Thinking: Was it OK for the Press to Publish Emails From the Sony Hack?

Critical Thinking: Was it OK for the Press to Publish Emails From the Sony Hack?

In November, hackers broke in to the computers at Sony and released emails detailing private conversations, celebrity salaries, and other privileged information. The hack was unlawful, but news organizations still published the illegally-obtained material. Was it OK for the press to do this?

Liz Young, 21, senior, Ohio State University (Columbus, Ohio)
Young is editor-in-chief of The Lantern, Ohio State’s student newspaper. She was campus editor, assistant sports editor and a copy editor prior to becoming editor. She’s double-majoring in journalism and economics, and has interned at The Columbus Dispatch and

The press has a duty to serve its audience, to tell the truth, and to expose wrongdoing where people’s lives, money, or other interests are in danger.

While people’s money goes to Sony, and while there are interesting matters like potential gender pay gaps that were revealed through the leaks, no information published was truly worth covering on its own. Especially at the expense of feeding into the interests of the hackers, who also made threats on American security. It was, however, worth it to cover the hacks as a whole.

As director Aaron Sorkin said in an op-ed for The New York Times, the emails didn’t contain information about Sony breaking any laws, or misleading the public, or acting in direct harm to consumers. So why expose people’s private information and emails when it’s not for some greater good?

Personal emails that were leaked revealed personal biases, and information including salaries and medical information was leaked as well. It’s interesting—I’ll admit it freely. People’s lives intrigue me, and while I’ve refrained from clicking on most of the more gossipy headlines about the matter, it was active refrain, not a lack of interest, that kept me from reading. And if I had decided to seek out the information, I would have gone to the source directly—after all, why should I read filtered information if I can read it in full somewhere else?

Covering the leaks is entirely newsworthy and entirely important. Mentioning what was leaked is, too. But writing entire stories about Angelina Jolie being called a name and including screenshots of the emails? It feels like celebrity gossip. And in the end, I know it doesn’t affect how I’d spend my money—I’m still just as likely to see a Sony movie.

Darrell Ehrlick, 39, editor, Billings (Mont.) Gazette
Prior to being named editor of his hometown paper, Ehrlick worked for the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, the Winona (Minn.) Daily News, and the La Crosse (Wis.) Tribune. He has been with Lee Enterprises, Inc., for more than a decade.

This problem may seem new because it involves Hollywood, North Korea, cyberhacking, and celebrity gossip.

Really, it’s a problem the press confronts occasionally.

I believe journalists are called upon to make judgments on a case-by-case basis. I don’t think it’s realistic or even ethical to believe that any information obtained by questionable means should be off-limits. Information landing in the laps of publishers—in other words, leaked—is nothing new.

The means of how information was obtained must always be considered, but it has to be done in light of the information’s end: How important is it?

There’s also a difference between journalists obtaining information illegally, and illegally obtained information being given to journalists. The importance of the information can be framed in a number of ways, including its impact on government or the community.

It could also be judged by the relative interest readers have in the information. Is a bunch of snarky celebrity gossip a worthwhile story if it means accepting information that was obtained illegally? I don’t know.

One lesson this situation emphasizes is that information may be easily accessed, but not so easily controlled. As an editor, the more troubling thought would be that the information would somehow be off limits to the press before its importance could even be weighed.

In the day of instant digital communication, it’s actually surprising to me this type of material isn’t more frequently leaked, and that a large company like Sony seems surprised it got out. 

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Published: February 19, 2015


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