Ethics of Publishing ‘Private’ Emails
Do journalists have any expectation of privacy in their emails?
In the context of today’s brohaha over Dave Weigel, who resigned from the Washington Post after publication of some emails he’d sent to the now-defunct Journolist made his old job untenable, commenter Steve wonders, “So James, what if someone gets hold of your old Emails? Should we have a hunting expedition and make all journalists Emails fair, or unfair, game? How about pundits?”
I’ve surely emailed some embarrassing things to one or two people. Never, intentionally at least, to a list. And, generally speaking, I’m pretty careful what I put into writing.
Should we have a hunting expedition and make all journalists Emails fair, or unfair, game? How about pundits?
There’s a distinction to be made between hacking and other forms of theft and betrayal by the intended source. If I send you an email and you then publicize it, you’re quite possibly a jerk. If you hack into my private email account to look for dirt, you’re a criminal.
In the case of a reputable journalistic outlet getting ahold of the latter by secondary means — ie., they didn’t commission the theft — I think ethics would require them to weigh very carefully the propriety of airing them. Only in the most dire public interest circumstance would that be permitted.
I’m not sure that the same holds true, though, if they obtain the emails from someone entitled to possess them and the sender of said emails is a public figure.