Much has been made this past week about the stolen Twitter documents, and whether Michael Arrington was right to release the documents on TechCrunch.
Arrington’s reasoning for releasing the documents is pretty sound, even if he has taken a considerable amount of heat for the decision. Generally speaking, the rule is that a journalist should never keep information from the public. If you have the information, you should always use it. Arrington is right when he asserts that Twitter is of interest to the public, and it certainly shows restraint that he didn’t release the more personal information he received.
Every journalist (myself included) has at some point come across confidential or leaked documents or information that needs to get out to the public. As a crime and courts reporter, I once found confidential settlement papers for the trial I was covering sitting on top of a waste bin in the court house men’s room — while the trial was in session. I quickly wrote down what I saw. I didn’t take the document or print it, but I did question the attorneys in the case, who confirmed the details of the settlement. None of them asked where I got the information. The next day, I had an exclusive story that impacted several thousand people. The deal was eventually rejected after public outcry. I had done my job and protected the public good.
But there’s a wrinkle in the case of the Twitter documents. Arrington didn’t find the documents in a public bathroom. And they weren’t leaked to him. They were stolen by a hacker who broke into Twitter’s Google Docs and took whatever he wanted. I’m guessing these thefts are being investigated by the proper authorities.
Journalists are taught never to accept information obtained by illegal means. And the fact that Arrington has those documents means he is in possession of stolen property — quite possibly an accessory to a crime. If I were running that newsroom, I would have politely turned down the hacker, and told him to peddle his wares somewhere else. I may even have taken the step of reporting him to authorities. After that, I would have written a story pointing out that a hacker had obtain confidential Twitter documents and was attempting to peddle them to news agencies.
Sadly, this case displays exactly what newspaper journalists are warning us about: the lack of standards in online journalism. And Arrington isn’t the only one who has displayed some questionable judgment here. Alley Insider has published a rundown of the most interesting documents (with links), and several other sites have done so as well.
As Leo Laporte recently pointed out, Arrington is a jerk and a troll. TechCrunch is the Weekly World News of tech journalism, because its head honcho is all about linkbait. Certainly, in this instance, Arrington managed to get people talking about TechCrunch. And, as we all know, no press is bad press. But is it a wonder that Pete Cashmore’s Mashable, which didn’t publish the documents, has overtaken TechCrunch in popularity?
Let this be a lesson to web publishers everywhere. Journalism ethics is an easy thing to teach; you can do it in just one sentence: Don’t be a jerk. Arrington apparently hasn’t learned that. And, in the process, he’s given his profession a black eye.