By David Craig
BuzzFeed’s decision last week to publish a 35-page dossier containing allegations about President-elect Donald Trump’s relationships with Russia has prompted a great deal of discussion among journalists and journalism organizations about the ethics of the decision.
A number of those weighing in – such Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan and Poynter Institute for Media Studies ethicist Kelly McBride – have argued that BuzzFeed was out of line for publishing unverified information. But some – including Watergate reporter and now CNN analyst Carl Bernstein and Columbia Journalism Review managing editor Vanessa M. Gezari – supported the decision.
I think the fact that thoughtful people have landed on different sides is evidence of the fact that there are multiple ethical considerations involved, some of them potentially conflicting. Although verification is at the core of ethical journalism, exceptional situations like this one may arise where the decision on publishing is not so easy, particularly if the documents have surfaced in some official setting.
I have been thinking beyond this situation to similar ones that may arise in the future and the ethical questions involved.
Below is a list of questions I’m suggesting to help in thinking through the ethical issues in these situations. I have grouped the questions under the headings of the principles of the Society of Professional Journalists ethics code, as well as other considerations – public relevance and journalistic purpose – that relate to the mission of journalism.
In writing these questions, I’m inspired by some lists that Poynter has done to help journalists in other areas of ethical decision-making such as going off the record and, recently, using Facebook Live. Two co-authors and I also raised some of these issues in a question list in an academic study on data journalism.
I welcome any comments from readers on how these questions might be used or revised.
Questions to consider in deciding on whether and how to publish unverified documents involving public officials:
Public relevance and journalistic purpose
Have the documents been discussed or used in any official settings (e.g. intelligence briefings, committee hearings)? Have they otherwise been discussed on the record by any public officials?
Is there a compelling reason for the public to know about the information in the documents?
Seeking truth and reporting it
Have you or others tried to verify the information? Where verification has been possible for specific pieces of information, has the information proved to be true?
Are the sources of the documents reliable? Why or why not?
Is your decision to publish based on your own independent judgment of the ethics of publishing or on competitive pressures or other considerations?
If the documents contain sensitive allegations, what potential harms could result if you release the documents in their entirety or publish those details and they prove to be false or impossible to verify?
If potential harm is a valid concern if you release the documents in their entirety or report details such as these, how could you minimize harm (e.g. redacting some details, summarizing)?
Being accountable and transparent
Are you explaining the process you used in your decision-making including any conflicting ethical considerations and the ethical reasons for making the decision you did?
Are you explaining any efforts you made to verify the content of the documents and the outcome of those efforts?
By thinking through these questions, journalists can uphold the importance of verification while also considering when and how to report on unverified documents there may be a compelling reason for the public to see.