As stunning as North Korea’s brazen hack of Sony Pictures was, the communist dictatorship wouldn’t have been so successful if it wasn’t for the media playing along.
It’s an unlikely alliance, a country with no free expression with only state-run media and the unabashedly unrestrained media of democracy. The hackers fed the information they stole from Sony to the media and then made vague threats to theatergoers. That resulted in most movie theaters refusing to show The Interview, a Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy satire about assassinating North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.
Sony is now putting The Interview out in limited release – for the small independent theaters that aren’t chicken.
Analysts believe the hack could cost Sony Pictures more than $100 million. It might also cost some people their jobs after unflattering emails were leaked, and published, by the media. Sensitive financial information, including performer salaries, became media fodder. Trade secrets about the movie studio’s strategy for future films were exposed for public banter. Clearly, the hack attack was more effective because the media served as an eager mouthpiece for the oppressive regime as it bullied a business.
That leads me to the ethical dilemma for journalists.
When stolen information lands in our laps, should we ignore it or go with it? For me, it depends on the importance of the information and the purpose that releasing it would serve. In the case of the Pentagon Papers, a New York Times feature in 1971, the paper published a leaked government report about the conflict in Vietnam. That’s the ultimate example of a worthy public purpose. One could argue that some of the WikiLeaks documents were of public importance, although a journalist should always consider whether releasing stolen or leaked information would put people in danger.
In my job, there have been many times when off the record sources told me negative things about companies and I withheld them because they couldn’t be confirmed, or the information wasn’t relevant for business readers. When I have referred to leaked information, it’s because it was crucial and its accuracy was verified.
In the case of the Sony hack, I don’t think that it serves any public purpose to release private emails about the movie business, the skills of certain high-level performers, and salaries. The only purpose it serves is to help North Korea damage Sony Pictures and its employees.
I know it would be too much to ask all of the world’s media to refrain from releasing the hacked goods. After all, even actresses who are victims of nude photo hacking get exploited by the worst of the worst in the industry.
Still, to all those media outlets that aired Sony Pictures’ dirty laundry, Kim Jong-Un sends his warm thanks.
In case you were wondering, I've never tried to assassinate any of my interview subjects. Then again, I've never been asked.