As the hacking scandal of the Murdoch-owned media unfolds, Sky News now claims it was hacking only in the interest of the public good. They even describe an example that is hard to argue against since it is one of the rare instances where we might not be too appalled at the thought of Sky breaking a particular case (a man faking his death to collect insurance money and Sky finding him through email). But where is the line drawn and would Sky even draw a line in the interest of a good leading story?
We know that journalist can do great investigative reporting such as Watergate and can contribute to the public good. But this is (at least to our knowledge) done within the legal limits of the law. When journalist and news organizations begin accusing people of crimes based on their own amateur criminal investigation it runs the risk of ruining the lives of innocent people. And when the story is a bombshell-type that will draw a ton of reaction from the public, editors will be too tempted to ignore it in the interest of selling more papers and gaining more advertising revenue.
Let’s face facts. The U.S. criminal justice system has been wrong at least a portion of the time and has put innocent people in prison and unfortunately executed some. This is a system filled with experienced people trained to do the jobs they perform and they still get it wrong some of the time. What happens when we have people not properly trained to do this work but have the power to tell the world about their investigations? We get accusations that prove to be wrong at a higher rate than the justice system but still take a huge toll on the innocent people involved.
The results of this case will seemingly have a massive impact on the world of journalism and, in particular, the ethics of chasing stories in the future. Whether the eventual penalty will be hard enough to stop this invasion of privacy of all people (public official, celebrity, accused criminal, or family of a fallen soldier) remains to be seen. We can really only hope enough can be done to stop this type of illegal vigilante journalism before more people get their lives negatively affected by false and unfair accusations.