When video files of briefings provided to the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles were leaked and uploaded to YouTube Sunday, it provided ethical and journalistic challenges at the Deseret News.
The video files were meant for the internal use of its leadership. They likely were stolen from the church. They were uploaded in part with the intent to embarrass the church, obvious from the negative headings given to each of the videos and the timing of the leak during the final day of the church's global general conference.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the owner of the Deseret News and KSL, media partners that share resources in the multimedia newsroom. As editors and writers gathered Sunday to consider the leak and its contents, we asked key questions and weighed several factors.
The leak, or theft, was from our owner. Is it newsworthy? Who, if anyone, is compromised by the leak? Is the potentially illegal behavior further encouraged by publication of the video contents? Is there public value in publishing the contents and the response to them? And finally, do we want to use the collective reach of the Deseret News, KSL and their subsequent web properties — the largest media reach in the state and significantly beyond — to describe and spread unauthorized content taken from our owner?
News organizations continue to wrestle with leaks, spurred in part with the advent of WikiLeaks, which posts leaked documents and hacked content likely obtained illegally. News organizations that receive but which are not complicit in the theft do not necessarily break the law in publishing the content. But use of unauthorized emails and other leaks remain a murky legal arena.
Ethical decisions are required in every instance, and weight is given to the harm it may cause, whether it compromises security, reveals private information (such as a Social Security number) or causes undue embarrassment without public purpose.
When millions of hacked emails from Sony were revealed, The New York Times made the decision not to open and report on the email contents, but it did report on the contents and reaction as other news outlets brought them to light. Editors there said the Times weighed newsworthiness and legality.
In the case of the 7.5 hours of leaked tapes depicting the LDS leadership, it was clear the leak itself was newsworthy, raising issues of security and loyalty, among others. But what of the actual contents?
We had more than a dozen editorial staff members watch and log the videos Sunday afternoon, while others reported on general conference. The team provided summaries and assisted in determining the newsworthiness.
Reporter Tad Walch prepared a story with reaction not just from the church, but also those we could reach who were depicted in the videos. We determined the contents of the leak also were newsworthy as politicians and others came before LDS leadership. We also determined that our readers would be best served by a clear, accurate and contextual account of what those individuals were doing at those meetings, and it was important to clearly provide the context for the meetings — context often lost on blogs or social media.
So a second story, offering news summaries, video lengths and straightforward reporting was prepared, pulling together the work of those staffers who watched the hours of content. It ran on deseretnews.com in conjunction with the story.
We chose not to directly link to the videos, because the headline presentation on each video offered a colored, inaccurate depiction of the proceedings we reviewed. Journalism ethics suggest that leaks are a tool for reporting, but they must be verified and vetted and presented fairly. Now armed with context, readers who wished to view the videos could do so on YouTube.
We offered the story and the summaries to enable our readers and viewers to have an accurate report in order to make good decisions in their lives. That value guided our decision to use the power of our media reach to spread content stolen from our owner.
Doug Wilks is managing editor of the News Division, the multiplatform newsroom of the Deseret News and KSL. Follow him on Twitter at @DWilksnews.