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On Why Analyzing the Leaked Coleman Data Is Ethical: A Reply to My Critics

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Ethical questions have been raised in recent days surrounding the reporting by news organizations and bloggers on the leaked Norm Coleman U.S. Senate campaign pledges and contributions.

Smart Politics has also received its fair share of both criticism and praise for its analysis of the compromised data, perhaps, one might argue, along partisan lines.

As for a portion of the critics, however, there has been some misunderstanding and debate as to what campaign contribution data is and should be kept private and what is already public information, as well as why any analysis should be conducted at all on this news story.

Criticism #1: "This is a private list." While the list came from a private source (the Coleman campaign), much of the information provided in the list of Coleman contributors is publicly available through the Federal Elections Commission, which requires campaigns to report a whole host of information about each of their donors.

This information includes: the name of the individual contributor, the contributor's city, state, and zip code, the date the contribution was made, the amount of the contribution, the individual's employer, and the individual's occupation. Additionally, if you click on the "Image number" which is a scan of a form provided by the campaign, the individual's street address is also listed.

No doubt, many contributors - and consumers of political news and blogs - are not aware that such detailed information is made public by the FEC when one contributes to a political campaign.

Criticism #2: "What is the point?" The story of Coleman's leaked databases is newsworthy for a variety of reasons, the most pressing of which is that this is a public relations nightmare for Coleman. As Smart Politics posited on Thursday, the leak of this data may very well affect Coleman's ability to raise the money he needs should he a) lose at trial and wish to appeal the 3-judge panel's decision, or b) receive the new election his attorneys have also suggested should take place.

The leak also plays into two narratives, depending largely on one's political point of view. Some believe the leak was caused by a cyber-attack by supporters of Al Franken, and that this demonstrates the depths to which they will go to win an election (to 'win at any cost'). Many others believe the leak was due to incompetence inside the Coleman campaign, and a snapshot of how almost everything has gone wrong for the campaign since the 700+ vote lead the Senator enjoyed after the night of November 4th.

Criticism #3: "Why don't you analyze Al Franken's contributors?" If Al Franken's list would have been leaked, Smart Politics would have analyzed publicly available information from his donors. The newsworthiness, however, is the story on Coleman's donors. The Coleman donor data is particularly interesting because it showcases how a significant number of his contributors came from out of state (one of the Coleman campaign's frequent charges against Franken during the campaign was that Franken was an 'outsider' who received most of his money from out of state).

Criticism #4: "You are doing harm and compounding the problem." The information analyzed by Smart Politics in its Thursday and Friday blogs were simply aggregate totals of information that is already posted on the FEC site: the contributor's home state and occupation. In theory, Smart Politics could have also blogged about individual donors to the campaign - the names of prominent Coleman supporters that are also on public record at the FEC. But there is less news value in this. The reporting on aggregate information does less to identify personal information than what one could obtain through a simple search of the FEC website, where individual names and addresses are provided.

A caveat: one can make the argument that the attention devoted to this story by the news media and blogosphere is generating interest in the story such that more and more people are trying to track down the private individual data that was leaked. That argument requires, however, the stance that there should have been no news reporting or analysis of this story in the first instance, in order to insure the leaked information was shielded as much as possible. To that argument, there is no rejoinder, other than the claim most reporters would make that the news value of the story, the First Amendment, and the public interest generally, outweighs the privacy concerns of the aggrieved individuals.

Those who are not persuaded by this counterargument are likely of the view that any 'fruits of the poison tree' should not be gathered and consumed. In this case, however, such fruits could also have been gathered, in a much more laborious exercise, from a non-poisonous tree - the FEC database.

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2 Comments


  • Good post. Obviously I disagree that the only alternative to protecting the privacy of individuals is not to to report on it at all. That simply had to be done. What I would question is whether journalists had to link directly to the data, in effect, being ACTIVE conduits to what was private data.

    Of course, several of the advocates for the leaked database have said the reason it was appropriate was to GET the mainstream media to report on a story that they'd reported in late January.

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