When investigative journalism turns into doxing

Ferreting out, verifying, and publishing concealed information is a big part of investigative journalism, one that’s brought critical stories into the public eye or added vital context to an ongoing news event. When part of your very job involves seeking out information that people would like to keep confidential, it brings up some interesting tensions about where, exactly, the line between journalism and doxing lies. Because it’s not a crisp, clear, easy thing to define, and that makes it something important to explore from an ethical standpoint.

For those unfamiliar, doxing involves finding and publicising personal information about someone, and the term is usually specifically used to describe situations in which this is done with malicious intent. You can probably come up with some high profile examples without me needing to prompt you. Doxing is incredibly damaging for a lot of reasons, ranging from endangering people’s lives to causing problems with their careers to creating massive nuisances. It can create openings for identity theft, for example.

The kind of information disclosed in doxing really varies, but at its heart, it is about disclosing something about an individual, not an institution. It can include home addresses, private contact information, social security or other identification numbers, insurance information, data about real estate, and a host of other things. This information may be pulled together from public records, leaked data, and a variety of other sources.

Thus, the Pentagon Papers weren’t doxing, though they contained reams of sensitive and sometimes personal infomation. It is not possible to ‘dox’ a corporation or a government or an agency, because this is an entity, not a person. But what about the publication of part of Donald Trump’s 1995 tax return by the New York Times earlier this year? That document contained personal information. Was it doxing? If you argue that malice is an integral component of doxing, then no — these documents were not posted in a vindictive attempt to hurt Trump, but in a desire to provide information of public interest.

Which brings you to the next component of the discussion: If malice doesn’t need to be a defining characteristic of doxing, where does the line between ‘public interest’ and ‘doxing’ lie? In this instance, the Times chose to publish this information because Donald Trump is a public figure who has made much of his business acumen who has also refused to disclose tax information, as is traditional for presidential candidates in the United States. The Times felt these documents were relevant to the interests of the electorate, which needs information like this to make informed decisions about candidates.

Let’s take a hypothetical example that gets a bit more tricky: What if it’s reported that Chelsea Clinton has purchased a ranch in Montana? Are the general specifics of that of public interest? Sort of, because she is a public figure, and moreover, she’s chosen to be a public figure by continuing to remain politically and socially engaged, much like her mother. But is it important for the public to know exactly where the ranch is, how much she paid for it, how big it is? That information was certainly deemed relevant when Senator Bernie Sanders bought yet another house in Vermont after running a ‘man of the people’ campaign all about how important it is to look out for the little guy. But is it relevant in her case? That information would be publicly available, and it wouldn’t take a journalist long to research the deed, check out the MLS, and publish a story filled with details — even if having that information shared would create security risks.

What about Malia Obama’s report card? Is that important? As the daughter of a president, is she a public figure? Yes, technically, but not by choice, and her parents have repeatedly warned that they do not want their daughters dragged into the media. Is her report card a matter of public interest? Is it relevant to decisions that people need to make? Do her grades and how they are used matter? If you’re doing an expose on favoritism in college admissions and you find out that the children of high-ranking public figures get a pass, getting into prestigious schools with mediocre GPAs, do their report cards matter? Yes, but do they matter individually, or in aggregate? Is it necessary to explicitly call out one particular person?

How about an author’s identity? At the same time that Trump’s documents were being published, a journalist outed a writer who has a very well-established pen name, and has also spoken extensively about why they choose to use a pen name and why this is important. Was that author’s identity a matter of public interest? Is it, perhaps, conditional? If someone writes under a pen name purporting to be, for example, Black and Jewish, and a reporter finds out that author is actually white and Christian, that’s pretty relevant information of public interest. But what if that author is basically who she says she is, only living under a different name, and choosing not just to use a pen name (lots of authors do) but to keep her personal identity concealed? Is that still ‘public interest’?

What about a city council member who is claiming to live in a city or district when she actually doesn’t? Public interest, right? In that case, it’s relevant to provide information about where she really does live to back up the assertion that she’s falsifying her residency — you can’t just say ‘Sixth District City Council Member Maria Gonzalez doesn’t live in the Sixth District.’ You have to add ‘Our investigation shows she really resides at 225 Poplar Street, in the Third District.’ What if you know that her campaign was dogged with death threats and harassment, and providing her home address could endanger her, possibly forcing her to move or go into hiding?

These are just some examples of situations that don’t always have easy, clear answers. Ethics in journalism are hard, and not everyone agrees on where these lines lie, which is why multiple editors need to discuss something before running it. The definitions of public figures and relevance can be surprisingly malleable, and anyone who says otherwise is denying the amount of nuance that goes into editorial decisions like these.

Image: La Chaise, Taylan Soytürk, Flickr