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The Hidden Cost Of Instant Reporting

It's never been easier to be a reporter. And it's never been easier to cheat at it, either.

Posted on May 15, 2013, at 4:28 p.m. ET

Brendan Mcdermid / Reuters

Before the internet, obtaining the private data requests of top-level financiers would have been difficult and risky for any journalist. It would have required at the very least a source willing to risk his or her career. In the absence of such an accomplice, it would have required physical document theft or a break-in. What Bloomberg journalists have been gleaning from terminals over the last two years required neither. In fact, it required very little: a handful of easy-to-remember commands, a few keystrokes. It was neither risky nor difficult. But it was still, in a very familiar way, unethical.

Digital communication has changed the way journalists do research, find sources, communicate, and fact-check. But another profound change has gone largely unnoticed: It's now easy — exceedingly easy, in some cases — for journalists to step over ethical lines that used to be, or at least feel, far away. This is journalism's other, other revolution: the rise of a constant state of fresh, unfamiliar ethical dilemma; the sudden manifestation of a set of moral choices that used to be theoretical; the need for a way to discern which of the thousands of similar clicks and log-ins and shares and "enters" you execute every day are the ones that will plunge you in above your head. It's the sudden requirement to say no to a range of temptations that used to be concealed just out of view, not unlike the way digital video and file sharing tempted millions of regular people to become music and movie thieves.

What's remarkable about what Bloomberg journalists have been doing is that it required no effort — these reporters were effectively presented with a simple yes/no question: Should I use these commands that are available to me? Or shouldn't I? This binary prompt, which can create motive merely by existing, has always existed in journalism and presented itself on occasion. But it's a defining characteristic of doing journalism today, and doing journalism online, both for professionals and amateurs. It required very little effort for David Kernell, a 20-year-old college student, to gain access to Sarah Palin's Yahoo email account in 2008. After "15 seconds" of Wikipedia research, he was able to circumvent Yahoo's security measures, committing, in both practical and legal terms, a profound data breach with the same effort it would have taken to change his Facebook password. He may not have been a journalist, but he was acting as one (and feeding information to plenty more).

Wikileaks, and Wikileaks-style data dumps, present scores of journalists (and normal citizens!) with ethical decisions that previously would have been rare and, for the most part, limited to those who actively sought them out — career muckrakers or journalists approached directly by whistle-blowers. Amid accusations of police bribery and various old-school journalistic sleaze, it can easily be forgotten that News of the World reporters who wanted to hear a subject's voicemail only needed to call a number, enter a default PIN, and listen. And it's hard to imagine Matthew Keys, accused of sharing Tribune Company log-in information with hackers and now possibly facing jail time, letting vandals into the L.A. Times headquarters with an old keycard.

Even the nature of plagiarism, the commodity of journalistic ethics breaches, has changed. Cribbing someone else's work no longer requires effort or measured intention. Research, a fully conscious choice, and retyping have been replaced with a Google query and a couple of keystrokes. (The complicating factor, of course, is that these same conditions make it easier to get caught.)

Doing bad things as a reporter has always been easy. But now it's easier, and some of the most obviously forbidden acts — eavesdropping on sources, for example — are within reach, sometimes so close that they cease to feel forbidden (they also bear an outward similarity to new, unfamiliar activities that may in fact be ethical. Is it unethical to send an email to a source and have that email report back on his geologic location? Or is it just good reporting?).

Ease doesn't alter a moral equation, but it can change a practical one. That's the best way to understand the eavesdropping at Bloomberg, and its context: It was still deliberate, but it was so easy that it may have felt like it wasn't.