Whether or not President Donald Trump wins reelection, one of the enduring legacies of his first term will be the manner in which it was encouraged by a hostile foreign power that meddled in America’s electoral process. Putting aside the veracity or rubbish-ness of Christopher Steele’s infamous Trump–Russia dossier, what’s widely accepted as true—at least among members of the evidence-based community—is that Russian hackers stole emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, and succeeded in dumping more than 20,000 pages of the latter’s inbox into the public domain in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign.
The extent to which news organizations, such as the New York Times, were or were not complicit in Russia’s ploy by reporting on the emails will be a topic of journalism-school discourse for years to come. Now four years later, in the midst of another hotly contentious presidential election, news outlets are wrestling with a more urgent question: What should be done if this happens again? The Washington Post, for one, is making sure its reporters and editors are prepared for that conundrum. In a memo to the newsroom on Wednesday morning, executive editor Marty Baron outlined five “principles for covering potential hacked or leaked material ahead of the election.”
First principle: “Before reporting on the release of hacked or leaked information, there should be a conversation with senior editors about the newsworthiness of the information, its authenticity and whether we can determine its provenance. Our emphasis should be on making a sound and well-considered decision—not on speed. We should resist the instinct to post a story simply because a competitor has done so.”
Second principle: “Beware the echo: The fact that politicians or other organizations are reporting or commenting on hacked or leaked information does not automatically make it reportable by us.”
Third: “If a decision is made to publish a story about hacked or leaked information, our coverage should emphasize what we know—or don’t know—about the source of the information and how that may fit into a foreign or domestic influence operation. Our stories should prominently explain what we know about the full context of the information we are presenting, including its origins and the motivations of the source, including whether it appears to be an effort to distract from another development. Headlines need to be carefully vetted to make sure they do not echo propaganda.”
Fourth: “We should avoid linking to hacked material or potential disinformation, which could amplify such material online without context. Also, while such material may be authentic, it may be part of a release that also includes doctored or falsified material.”
And last but not least: “Connect the dots: Our ongoing coverage should help readers understand how political lines of attack fit into disinformation operations. If a candidate amplifies a critique of an opponent that is also being promoted by foreign actors or domestic conspiracy theorists, we should make that clear in our stories.”
Welcome to election season 2020.
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