The Ethical Leaker: Four Easy Steps to More Ethical Leaking

The 6 October 2006 LA Times Opinion Page offered a very good examination of the ethical issues related to the recent high profile leaks that broke the Foley, National Intelligence Estimate (NEI), and Hewlett-Packard (HP) corporate spying stories.

The column's authors Kirk O. Hanson, Executive Director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, and Jerry Ceppos, former Vice President/News of Knight Ridder and former Executive Editor of the San Jose Mercury News, present a clear system, in which the pros and cons of leaking are broken down into four easy steps:

  1. "Is the information classified, proprietary or otherwise protected? Is there a system that clearly considers this information restricted? If so, then the leak must be worth the betrayal."
  2. Does the potential leaker have a "specific obligation, legal or ethical, to protect the information, or perhaps has the information only because another person violated an obligation to keep it secret[?] If either is true, it is a more serious matter to reveal the information."
  3. Does the information concern "public or private matters[?] Information about another's sexual orientation, about private finances or about personal phone calls has more of a claim to privacy than information about a person's actions as a corporate executive or a government official. The difficult cases are those in which the private life of individuals influences their public actions, as in the Foley case."
  4. What is "the public benefit that would result from a leak [vs.] the harm that could be done[?]"

In applying this framework for evaluating leaks to the three case studies they've selected, Hanson and Ceppos conclude that the Foley and NIE leaks are justified. The HP leak remains a moot point, as it's still not clear whether or not "any damage was done by [those] leaks."

The authors argue that the Foley leak, while deeply personal, "may have stopped behavior that could have caused emotional or physical damage to other young people," while the NIE leak provided "important information for Americans, even if it also served political ends."


Speaking at Southern Methodist University on 5 October 2006, Terence Smith, a correspondent and senior producer for The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, addressed the related topic of high-profile US government leaks, focusing specifically on two key competing concerns: national security vs. the public's right to information.

An article in SMU's Daily Campus newspaper reports that Smith's speech cited the NY Times and Washington Post stories that broke the NSA's domestic spying program, rendition, and government efforts to track US citizens' banking records. All three were printed despite high-level government requests to hold the stories in the interest of national security.

Applying Hanson and Ceppos's framework, we can trace the ethical issues that perhaps initially gave Times and Post editors reason to pause and consider the consequences of printing or holding these stories. However, it's not difficult to understand that the public benefit of publishing these stories trumps the concerns raised by steps 1 and 2, which caution against leaks of classified content by those who have a legal obligation to protect such information.

Hanson and Ceppos note that "British Lord Northcliffe had it right when he said that 'news is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.'"

As such, leakers will always be lionized by some; vilified by others. But if journalists apply careful consideration and a thorough awareness of their awesome responsibilities to each situation involving a leak, perhaps damaging or self-serving leaks will only rarely be granted the legitimacy of dissemination via established media outlets.

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