Break the News, Not the Professional Code of Conduct

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is grossly over-reaching. But that doesn’t make the allegation Reuters Deputy Social Media Editor Matthew Keys breached journalistic ethics any less serious.

 

When the news broke that Reuters Deputy Social Media Editor Matthew Keys had been federally indicted for allegedly conspiring with members of Anonymous to deface a number of news websites run by the Tribune Company I shut my laptop screen for a moment in shock.

 

Really, it wasn’t the sort of allegations I’d ever expected to hear. On Twitter, Keys came across as a fairly clean-cut social media editor. Keys had what many people would consider a dream job at Reuters. For every few thousand journalists a large company employs – usually only one social media expert will be offered a position. But Keys is now on paid leave: his security pass has already been revoked and his computer is under forensic examination.

 

Today, Matthew faces up to 25 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000 if found guilty of the crimes he’s been charged with under the CFAA. The over-reach of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is sickening. If Matthew had committed rape he’d be facing less potential time in jail.

 

From the outside, Matthew was a fine good social media editor, and I miss him in my news feed. Professional social media news aggregation is actually not that easy. It’s stressful and time consuming. Verifying breaking news accurately, consistently is a damn hard job.

 

I should know. I work professionally as a social media news content aggregator. And so it’s actually painful to consider Matthew’s job is now at risk. Becoming a trust-worthy, reliable news-source on social media is insanely difficult – I don’t know any professional social media-based news aggregators and curators who haven’t forfeited sleep to follow the thread of a breaking story.

 

I’m not going to comment on the trail of Matthew’s non-work related online-activities – the entry on Encyclopedia Dramatica, and the Wikipedia entries dredged up as character reference offer no real insight into his professional standing.

 

What I want to discuss is something I think the media has purposefully chosen not to take a long, hard look at – the actual allegations Keys is facing in the context of journalistic ethics. There’s no doubt the U.S. Department of Justice use of the CFAA to charge Keys is grossly over-reaching. That’s not in dispute.

 

What sparks my interest is Jay Leiderman – Matthew Key’s lawyer’s claim Keys was operating as an “undercover-type” investigative journalist during his dealings with Anonymous. I am honestly less than impressed by this excuse.

 

Each day I am faced with a scenario, where I wake up and begin seeking breaking news, grasping for content literally 30 seconds before other news outlets. I understand the pressure Keys was under.

 

But there are all sorts of ways to become a fast news-breaker: create lists to filter information, foster friendships with people who have insight, and keep an eye on situations that are on the boil. These are all completely legitimate ways of seeking the thread of an emerging story. I’m not even adverse to bartering information (within limits.)

 

But my code of ethics as a journalist and social media professional is also informed by the Australian journalism union. In particular, the following dictum from the Media Alliance ‘s Code of Ethics alludes to values I hold dear:

 

“Use fair, responsible and honest means to obtain material. Identify yourself and your employer before obtaining any interview for publication or broadcast. Never exploit a person’s vulnerability or ignorance of media practice.”

 

The allegations against Keys – if proven true – suggest unacceptable behavior from a social media news editor.

 

The allegation that Matthew handed over passwords from a former workplace’s website to curry favor with a bunch of hackers is utterly non-tolerable behavior from a supposedly professional journalist.

 

Regardless of the alleged illegality, it is simply unethical.

 

If Keys is found guilty of conspiracy, there’s the distinct possibility he’ll have breached his employers’ Trust Principles, which states:

That Thomson Reuters shall at no time pass into the hands of any one interest, group or faction;
That the integrity, independence and freedom from bias of Thomson Reuters shall at all times be fully preserved;
That Thomson Reuters shall supply unbiased and reliable news services to newspapers, news agencies, broadcasters and other media subscribers and to businesses governments, institutions, individuals and others with whom Thomson Reuters has or may have contracts;
That Thomson Reuters shall pay due regard to the many interests which it serves in addition to those of the media; and
That no effort shall be spared to expand, develop and adapt the news and other services and products so as to maintain its leading position in the international news and information business.

I’ve also noticed journalists referring to Matthew as an “activist.” Frankly, if the allegations against Keys are proven true, this is a slur on activists as well. There’s zero evidence to suggest Matthew was acting as an activist. And most activists are law abiding citizens, who would hesitate to incite others to tamper with a former employer’s website.

 

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) under which Matthew Keys has been charged is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad thing (and god-forbid Keys should stand trial under it.) But can we not still argue that the CFAA must be reformed – while recognizing the behavior Keys is alleged to have engaged in is both unethical and unbecoming of a journalist?

 

The screech to turn every individual charged under the CFAA into an image of Aaron Swartz to further the fight for reform does nobody any favors. It’s awful enough that Matthew Keys is facing a felony trial for potentially creating the news, rather than just reporting it. Let’s not also make the same mistake.

 

- Written By: Asher Wolf @ Asherwolf.net

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