How journalism got exploited by hackers

When will the media wise up to the dangers of reporting on leaked emails?

They're watching.
(Image credit: Patrick George / Alamy Stock Photo)

Hackers are inserting themselves into the news production business with increasing regularity, and the effect should unsettle journalists and the public alike. That's because those who steal information are in a very good position to make the media work for them, even as they conceal their own aims.

The most seductive part of recent data dumps, like the one that released emails from former Secretary of State Colin Powell or the Democratic National Committee, is that they do help journalists advance stories. American foreign policy journalists and experts did get an unprecedented look at the workings of the State Department during 2010 WikiLeaks dump. If you repeat mantras to yourself about how "information wants to be free," or that "transparency is always good," it may seem that hackers are doing something like public service.

For instance, last week's leak of Powell's emails contained a number of items that fit into and advanced existing stories. There were his derogatory comments about both presidential candidates. Donald Trump was, for Powell, a "demagogue," and Hillary Clinton was "greedy." Further, the leaks included details in the ongoing story about Clinton's handling of email, namely Powell's desire not to be dragged into the story himself, especially not as her human shield. And perhaps most tantalizing was the anecdote, relayed by a Powell correspondent worried about Clinton's health, that Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told him that Clinton "could barely climb the podium steps" at an event.

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But the leak also contained a number of other trivialities about the lives of Colin Powell and his family. For instance, that Powell's son bought a $1,000 toilet and tried to sell it to his father when it proved not so useful in his own home.

The trouble is, hackers have structural advantages over journalists that are dangerous for the news business. The first is that they can uncover more information more quickly. They also have the tools to filter the data they uncover or even manipulate it before release. And merely by compromising the privacy of another person or institution, the hackers can make any of the data they dump newsworthy merely by their act of stealing and revealing it.

The stolen data that hackers offer to journalists is impossible for journalists to resist. Investigative journalism is time consuming and expensive. Keyword searching for scandalous email addresses in an Ashley Madison hack or for names in a packet of stolen emails only takes a few minutes or hours. In effect, hackers can deputize the media to analyze and publicize data that the hackers themselves think is newsworthy or useful.

Journalists have always been vulnerable to manipulation by their sources. See the way so many journalists were embarrassed by the intelligence leaks they got from former Vice President Dick Cheney's office during the run-up to the Iraq War. Media institutions also have to be on guard against their biases. Being human, they have a built-in bias toward stories that seem to confirm the world is what they believe it to be.

But journalists and media institutions are especially vulnerable to manipulation in the form of leaked documents, like emails or cables. A human source may give off signs of lying, or his personal and financial interests may be detectable to the journalists and detract from the credibility of the source's claims. A stolen document, however, seems to certify itself. Especially if it is just one among hundreds or thousands.

The journalists who wrote up stories about Powell's email know very little about the data they are perusing, or the motives driving those who leaked it. It could be a little digital activist who believes in transparency and made public everything they stole. Or it could be a person or foreign government who wanted to shape a political outcome. We know that a story about Clinton's poor health is in this dump. We don't know if emails about Clinton's vigor were selectively edited out of it before release. In fact, it is perfectly possible for a hacker to use the information in the data they did steal as a model for mocking up false information they want to circulate in their leak. All we have is some light speculation that a group of Russian hackers may be responsible.

The effect is that by digitally hacking the data of corporations, celebrities, or politicians, the leakers perform a "social-hack" of journalism itself. Public relations agencies are paid top dollar in their sometimes humiliating quest to get news outlets to write stories about their clients. But a group of successful hackers can change the front page of all the major news websites in the world within a few hours just by leaking enough of the right sort of data. Journalists barely have time to check what they are reporting, and victims of the leak may have a difficult time authenticating the contents of it, too.

There were times when paparazzi photographers were blamed for creating stories through their scummy tactics or even endangering and killing their subjects. Some goaded celebrities outside of Hollywood hangouts for a laugh on a gossip site, others chased Princess Diana through a tunnel on motorcycles. The introspection lasted a few weeks, some laws were passed, and then the market demanded the exclusive photos and everyone went back to business.

What has to happen for the media to rethink its cooperation — or capture — by hackers?

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Michael Brendan Dougherty

Michael Brendan Dougherty is senior correspondent at He is the founder and editor of The Slurve, a newsletter about baseball. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, ESPN Magazine, Slate and The American Conservative.