How Far is Too Far?/ By Kineret Brokman

The decency of public exposure: Snowden and public outcry over publication of sensitive information

After a month trapped in Moscow’s international airport, Edward Snowden was allowed to enter Russia temporarily and under tight restrictions. The whistleblower had been on the run from the United States government, seeking refuge in multiple countries, including Ecuador and China. It seems that Snowden is finally seeing a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

In a series of exposes published in June and July, The Guardian published top-secret details of U.S. surveillance programs carried out by the National Security Agency.  Snowden, a former CIA employee and NSA contractor, leaked information revealing government interception of telephone and internet data collection.

Planning Tool for Resource Integration, Synchronization, and Management, known as the PRISM program, “is a demonstration of how the U.S. government coops U.S. corporate power to its own ends. Companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft… they all get together with the NSA and provide the NSA with direct access to the back ends of all of the systems you use to communicate, to store data…” said Snowden in an interview with Glen Greenwald from The Guardian and Laura Poitras, an American documentary director and producer.

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

Five of the nine companies accused of providing the government with “direct access” to their servers to collect data on users have denied such allegations.  In their official statements, Google and Microsoft admitted to providing information to the government only when specific court orders were issued.

Other reports state that the program targets only those outside of the United States in order to thwart possible threats to the country.  Mike Rogers, a U.S. House Representative and Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, reported that PRISM and other data collection programs have been used to “stop a terrorist attack in the United States.”  The White House told ABC News that the “information gathered under the program is among the most valuable and important intelligence.”

The publication of such top-secret information has since created ongoing and widespread controversy. The United States government condemned Snowden for leaking the information to the public. The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, referred to Snowden’s actions as “reckless”. Many members of Congress called the whistleblower a traitor, while others support his actions.

In his lengthy video interview with The Guardian, Snowden said he recognizes that the government will say that he “violated the Espionage Act” and that “I [Snowden] have aided our enemies in making them aware of these systems.” He was indeed charged by U.S. federal prosecutors on June 14th with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information, and willful communication of classified intelligence to an unauthorized person.

“I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I do, everything that I say, everyone that I talk to…is recorded…and that is not something I am willing to live under,” said Snowden in his interview with Glen Greenwald. He expressed that while trying to do his job, his morality was tested and when no corrections were being made by the “higher powers”, he was not willing to live with this knowledge hidden from the public any longer. Following the publication, the U.S. barred Snowden from reentering the country.

Debate on public exposure

Before leaking the information about the NSA programs to news sources, Snowden weighed the consequences of his actions. In his interview he explained that he had hoped to spark some kind of conversation between the people of the United States and their government, and wished to inform people of this interference in their private life in order to create a change. Arguments have since sprung over whether Snowden should be considered a hero for exposing the truth to the public or considered a traitor for doing just that.

Though not as high profile as the Snowden scandal in the mainstream media, in newsrooms that cater to smaller audiences, journalists are forced to make similarly tough decisions when considering the publication of sensitive information. University publications, for example, which are mostly read by fellow students and families, face similar deliberations over what they should or should not expose to their readers.

Three years ago, Brandeis University student newspaper The Justice reported a story about two students who had allegedly assaulted a police officer on campus after a large party. Those students were arrested that night and The Justice made sure to cover the story.

When the article was published, the newspaper “received a lot of flak for it…the two students who were arrested were upset that we had published some things about the story,” says the current online editor of The Justice and senior at Brandeis University, Sara Dejene.  The students complained that their full names were published and that such an article would hinder their chances to find jobs in the future.

“The concern was that our newspaper was the only link between the two students and the arrest and therefore, we would be really hurting their chances of finding employment or any other opportunities in the future,” explains Dejene.  There had been no other coverage of the incident by any local newspaper.

The question discussed among the editorial board of The Justice was whether they had an obligation to report the whole truth, or an obligation to their fellow classmates and the university community.  Dejene elaborated on the controversy saying that “our editors were truly divided on this issue… half of the board argued that we are a professional newspaper and we have every right to print those names, while the other half thought that this issue doesn’t really matter to our publication but it really will hurt the students’ future.”

This long debate took place over a year until the decision to remove the two students’ names was made.  The online version was edited and now reads with a note at the top saying “Editor’s Note: Because all charges related to the arrests described in this article have been dismissed, The Justice has removed the names of the individuals involved from the online version of this article. For the original text, contact the editor in chief at editor@thejustice.org.”

Similarly, New York’s Binghamton University student publication, Pipe Dream, faced the hard decision of whether a story should be exposed at all, and how it should be presented to their readers.

On November 15th 2012, Pipe Dream reported that a Binghamton University student committed suicide in a campus dorm. The article was published within twelve hours of the incident, and before the entire family was notified.

Eleven days after, the paper published a letter to the editor sent in by the student’s mother. In it she wrote, “you acted in a reckless manner with total disregard for my family…this was YOU ignoring the request that you wait until I traveled home to my son, Katie’s younger brother, to inform him of her death.” She condemned the Pipe Dream and, more specifically, the editor for publishing the notice before she had the chance to notify the entire family.

In response to the letter, the Pipe’s editor explained that rumors were already circulating and that it had occurred in a public place, and therefore was public knowledge by that time.  The intension of the newspaper article was not to have a good headline, but as the “public record of Binghamton University”, Pipe Dream has an obligation to report news when it occurs.

“The motivation for publishing revolves around our primary responsibility as any newspaper, to deliver true and accurate information to your audience, which in this instance, was our Binghamton student body and not to the victim’s family…but it is not black and white,” says the current Op-Ed editor of the Pipe Dream and senior at Binghamton University, Michael Snow.

Pipe Dream’s decision to provide the students with a clear understanding of what had truly occurred was met with harsh criticism from those who supported the mother’s statements.  “There were those who wrote that publishing such an article was disrespectful to the family and those who wrote that if they were talking to the New York Times, this would not be a discussion. This is thereby holding the Pipe Dream to a double standard as the Pipe Dream is considered a professional newspaper,” says Snow.

Knowledge and information are fundamental, but whether it is or should be exposed to the public is more of a “grey, murky area” says Snow, leaving those with the power to influence with the responsibility to make tough decisions.

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