Sony letter shines spotlight on news outlets' ethics

Sony's attorney David Boies sent a letter to media outlets on Sunday, demanding they destroy any files or other data obtained after a cyberattack last month and cease reporting on their contents.

Journalists should rethink their stance on reporting information relating to Sony Pictures Entertainment that was leaked through a cyberattack last month, say PR pros.

Sony’s attorney David Boies sent a letter to media outlets such as the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal on Sunday, demanding they destroy any files or other data obtained after the cyberattack and cease reporting on their contents.

While Sony’s tactic was "probably legally sound," the end-goal might not be realistic, according to Jeff Eller, a former Clinton White House crisis comms specialist. Eller left his role as EVP and co-chair of Hill+Knowlton Strategies' global crisis practice in the spring to support GM with its response to the automaker’s ignition switch crisis.

"Sony probably had to do this from a legal standpoint, but I doubt there is an expectation that it will stop everybody [from continuing to report on it]," he explains. "However, based on this situation, there is a case to be made for raising the level of scrutiny within news organizations regarding how they choose to do their reporting."

The entertainment company sent the three-page letter, written by Boies, to counteract further damage from the hack, which leaked internal secret salaries, emails from executives containing snide comments about actress Angelina Jolie and racially insensitive jokes about President Barack Obama, Social Security Numbers, and detailed and identifiable health information on the company’s staffers, their children, and spouses.

In the letter, Boies asked news organizations for their "cooperation in destroying the stolen information," adding that Sony does not consent to their possession, review, copying, dissemination, publication, uploading, downloading, or making any use of the data.

"If you do not comply with this request, and the stolen information is used or disseminated by you in any manner, Sony Pictures Entertainment will have no choice but to hold you responsible for any damage or loss arising from such use or dissemination by you," he added.

Outlets that received the letter included the New York Times, Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times.

Jonathan Zaback, The CHR Group’s chief strategy officer and partner, says no company has the right to take away the First Amendment rights of the press. However, the media should not be excused from having a moral compass, he adds.

"I think it is disgusting and immoral to print someone’s personal records – that isn’t reporting," Zaback says. "I understand people get paid a lot for click-throughs, but there are people getting destroyed that don’t deserve it on the other side."

Screenwriter and playwright Aaron Sorkin, who was mentioned in one of the leaked emails, stepped into the debate with an op-ed in the Guardian on Sunday, blasting media outlets that had been covering the incident.

"If you close your eyes you can imagine the hackers sitting in a room, combing through the documents to find the ones that will draw the most blood," he wrote. "And in a room next door are American journalists doing the same thing. As demented and criminal as it is, at least the hackers are doing it for a cause. The press is doing it for a nickel."

Success Communications Group EVP Michael Cherenson agrees that reproducing the illegally obtained material only perpetuates the crime.

"I think this has been a good, legitimate PR strategy by Sony and I think reporters have an ethical obligation to heed the company’s request," Cherenson says. "The media recognized the peril of reproducing the naked photos that were hacked, so I wonder why they don’t take the same hesitation when it comes to memos and Social Security Numbers and emails."

He adds that, when it comes to this particular crisis, Sony has a "strong leg to stand on."

The situation is not so black and white, however. Although prominent media outlets, such as the Wall Street Journal, have reported that the hack exposed the Social Security Numbers of more than 47,000 current and former employees, along with Hollywood celebrities like Sylvester Stallone, the actual numbers were omitted from news stories.

Even so, Cherenson asserts that Sony’s request extends this issue into a crisis for media outlets and their own credibility.

"This is an opportunity for the news media as well as for Sony to assert themselves as having a unique place in our marketplace of ideas," he explains. "For traditional journalists, this will define their profession as much as it is defining Sony."

By outlining a code of ethics in response to this situation, he adds that news outlets will further define a demarcation of the border between professional and citizen journalists.

"This is a test for professional journalists who are competing with the social media world, which does not live by a code of ethics," Cherenson says. "They are not professionals, so they are not going to take the same caution as journalists who have to draw the line and say this is where we are not going to go."

Although Zaback supports Sony’s statement, he contends that a letter may have been the wrong vehicle for delivery. One-on-one contact with media outlet leaders would have been a smarter move for Sony, he explains.

"This situation should have been handled in a more personal way," Zaback says. "That letter is going to live on in the media until the news cycle changes, whereas at least a personal conversation is about the human touch and when real problems come up, real people need to handle them and I don’t believe that a letter does it."

Regardless of how the message was distributed, the bigger question, according to Eller, is if or how Sony is going to back up its threat.

"There is a body of legal work out there that could make you think this is not legally enforceable," he says.

For instance, The Washington Post reported on Sunday that Sony’s ability to follow through with legal action is "uncertain at best."

However, every case is different, and the debate over hacking versus leaking may change legal interpretations down the road, Eller adds.

Sony’s letter follows a Bloomberg News report from Friday detailing how the company’s former head of corporate communications, Charles Sipkins, found himself out of a job after a Sony executive was left off a Hollywood Reporter roundtable, as evidenced by internal emails that were leaked through the hack.

The hackers, also known as the Guardians of Peace, have demanded the company withdraw upcoming comedy The Interview based on a fictional plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The FBI is investigating the incident and has not yet named a culprit.

Rubenstein Communications is aiding Sony with its response to the crisis, and technology security firm Mandiant is helping with the investigation, Bloomberg News reported on Monday.

A representative from Rubenstein was not immediately available to comment.

Reporters respond to Sony’s request on Twitter:

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