I experienced an interesting collection of contrasts going to journalism school in the mid 1990s. Inside the same building, we had investigative journalists who specialized in advanced use of databases and stodgy editors who missed the days of manual typewriters and wore technological ignorance as a badge of honor.

And yet, there were textbooks that said journalists ought to be learning computer programming, because there was going to be a need for journalists who had the ability to do both. It took a while, but it seems that day has come. Maybe not to sit down and write applications software, but to hack.

But is it ethical for a journalist to hack?

The foremost rule of journalism is that a journalist’s job is to report news. Don’t interfere with it, don’t create it, and don’t change it. Taken to an extreme, there are people who will argue that if a journalist sees a person getting ready to jump off a bridge, the only ethical thing to do is to snap a photograph.

I never liked that philosophy, and my outspoken opposition to it made me wonder for a while if I was going to be able to pass a required class to continue my major. Fortunately, that was a time when dissenting opinions weren’t a kiss of death, and most professors and practicing journalists do see that as an extreme, making it acceptable to violate the rule of not changing or interfering with the news in matters of life and death.

But it stands to reason that if it’s ethically questionable for a journalist to intervene to save someone’s life, then hacking is also a questionable practice for a journalist.

Here’s the problem. It’s exceptionally difficult for a journalist to hack into a system and just gather information without consequence. In a now-infamous case, a Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid in the UK hacked into the voicemail of a missing 13-year-old,  listened to messages, and deleted them to make room for more incoming messages, in the process creating evidence that the girl might be alive and checking her voicemail.

One of the recurring themes in Journalism 200 at the University of Missouri-Columbia is to take ethical questions and do a substitution in order to make right or wrong more clear. This is an application of the philosopher John Rawls, among others.

Would you agree that journalists are a group of people?

Would you agree that hacking into someone’s account is akin to picking a lock?

Let’s take a look at the lockpicking question first. Is it ethical for a journalist to break into somebody’s house or car? I’m not sure I want to say that’s never, ever permissible, but I think just about anyone would say it would take extraordinary circumstances for this to be OK. If it’s wrong to break into my house and read my diary looking for dirt, except perhaps  in extraordinary circumstances–I can’t think of any right now, but perhaps they exist–then isn’t the same thing true of breaking into my e-mail or voicemail for the same purpose?

So now let’s look at groups of people.

Is it OK for private investigators to hack into someone’s voicemail?
Is it OK for collection agencies to hack into someone’s voicemail?
Is it OK for police to hack into someone’s voicemail?

The Constitution is loud and clear on the third option. The Fourth Amendment says yes, if they obtain a search warrant.

If we don’t want police breaking into voicemail without a warrant, then I’m pretty sure we don’t want those other groups doing it at all, and I’m pretty sure we don’t want journalists doing it either. Perhaps in extraordinary circumstances, if we’re feeling generous. Perhaps. But not as a matter of routine.

The tricky thing about journalism is that it isn’t a profession. People like engineers and lawyers have to pass tests in order to call themselves that. But if you can get someone to publish you, technically you’re a journalist, regardless of whether you went to school or what you studied. There’s no test to pass, no license, and no code of ethics to swear to uphold. And I’ve seen one published author claim that handing out software piracy tools is OK for him to do, because he’s a journalist.

Personally, I wouldn’t bet my career on that interpretation of the First Amendment holding up in court. Although there are journalists who act as if they are above the law, the journalism school that I graduated from (I can’t speak for all of them) advises you that generally speaking, journalists have to abide by the same laws that anybody else does.

So, if it’s generally not OK for a journalist to break into a house, or for a collection agency to hack into voicemail, I think, if anything, it’s pretty generous to say that it’s only OK for a journalist to hack into voicemail under extraordinary circumstances.

So how does one find extraordinary circumstances?

It seemed like Dr. Don Ranly, professor emeritus of Journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia, quoted the philosopher John Stuart Mill on a daily basis. And I think Mill can help us here.

John Stuart Mill said the individual has the right of self-expression so long as doing so does not harm other individuals.

So I would argue that extraordinary circumstances are when it doesn’t harm other individuals. Some people might extend that to when the benefits outweigh the harm–perhaps when investigating a public figure suspected of corruption. I don’t know if I want to go that far.

Hacking a missing 13-year-old’s voicemail doesn’t hold up well to that. It harms the family. And the only good is getting a scoop your competitors don’t.

Stooping to that level gives journalists a bad name.

And let’s turn it around. Another Rupert Murdoch property got its Twitter account hacked earlier this week and wasn’t happy about it. Presumably, even if the hackers had tweeted nonsensical, relatively harmless phrases like “I like turtles,” rather than false news about a presidential assassination, they still wouldn’t have liked it. So if journalists don’t like being hacked, they should question whether that’s something they ought to be doing.