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What Is The Media's Responsibility When Reporting Hacked Information?


And we have one more slice of the story that speaks to questions about security and privacy. Top American athletes, including Serena and Venus Williams and Simone Biles, had their private medical files stolen, apparently by Russian hackers. That was revenge for the International Olympic Committee ban on dozens of Russian athletes for doping violations, and that's not all. A trove of private emails from former Secretary of State Colin Powell were also leaked. These came from a website that analysts have linked to the Russian government. And this all comes just a few months after that massive hack of the Democratic National Committee.

And Russia's leaders have denied involvement in any U.S. hacks, but clearly a major concern is whether a foreign government is trying to interfere in U.S. elections, but we want to focus on another aspect of this story. And that is the media's role in advancing a story that relies on stolen emails or phone logs. We were wondering whether there is a responsibility to consider the intent or agenda of the source of the information before publishing or broadcasting it, so we called our NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik to help us think about this.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: I mean, part of the problem is if you get a major treasure trove of documents, the impulse is to go see what you can find that seems newsworthy and post it as quickly as you can. And I think that has to be done with great care and thoughtfulness. I think there are concurrent conversations going on in terms of what's newsworthy here and, gosh, what are the implications of what we're up to?

If we are to credit what are authoritative suggestions that the Russians were behind this, then it would seem to be that we're being disrupted by a foreign force, and we get information from unsavory people all the time. So in and of itself, that doesn't seem that shocking. The problem to me is are we being - doing so thoughtlessly? Are we being just disrupted time and again by these leaks into going to whatever the next shiny object is? And I think over the long haul, that's going to be something these organizations are - have to - going to be comfortable with or extremely thoughtful about.

MARTIN: Well, and yet, though, as you know better than anybody, there are hundreds of different types of media organizations these days who all have very different standards for what they think is interesting. Is each news organization essentially charting its own path here when it comes to producing stories which is dependent upon this kind of stolen information?

FOLKENFLIK: I think in the immediate term, yes. Each one is charting its own path. Simply by virtue of the fact that somebody else is reporting something or posting something doesn't make it a requirement for other larger broadcasters and news organizations to share that information and distribute it more widely.

I do think, however, that there are going to be a couple of ways in which we're going to have to think about this either as a nation, we're going to have to accept far greater encryption than we seem to be willing to move toward in a post-9/11 world or we're going to have to change our tolerance levels for people who speak in private intemperately and differently than they speak in public or else we could have a situation of just eternal and constant bursts of outrage about the latest thing we've learned that some prominent figure has said and the hacking will just continue because the hackers themselves are anonymous in a way that puts them beyond the law's reach.

MARTIN: That's NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik speaking to us from our bureau in New York. David, thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.