Ethical arguments and legal threats looked unlikely Monday to deter US media from delving ever deeper into the hacked emails of Hollywood powerhouse Sony Pictures Entertainment.
Top newsroom executives reasserted their duty to draw public attention to purloined confidential information -- though they differed over the significance of the Sony trove.
"As we’ve made clear, we have used documents surfaced by others" in the past, said New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet.
"It would be a disservice to our readers to pretend these documents weren’t revealing and public," added Baquet on the Times' website.
"But the main issue, the main thing we consider, is how newsworthy the documents are."
Baquet said the Times didn't rank the Sony data dump on a par with the Pentagon Papers in 1971 or the Wikileaks data dump of 2006 -- both of which figured prominently in the newspaper.
Media gossip blog Gawker, however, vowed to pursue its aggressive coverage of "very newsworthy documents" that give a rare glimpse into the inner workings of a major multinational corporation.
- 'A public concern' -
"We'll continue to report on what's so squarely in the ambit of public concern," Gawker president and chief counsel Heather Dietrick told AFP by email.
The Sony data breach -- by a posse of hackers who may or may not have links to North Korea -- is thought to be the worst cyber theft of its kind in US corporate history.
Both the Times and Gawker were among US news media that received a stern letter over the weekend from Sony's lawyer David Boies, demanding that they immediately halt mining what he called, in capital letters, "the Stolen Information."
Failure to do so, Boies said, might trigger a lawsuit from Sony Pictures Entertainment, a cornerstone of Japan's Sony Corporation.
"Good luck with that legal threat," responded San Francisco digital rights lawyer Marcia Hofmann, writing on her Twitter account.
She recalled a US Supreme Court decision in 2001, Bartnicki versus Vopper, that held that news media cannot be held liable for publishing material illegally obtained by a third party.
"I think the Sony letter is misguided. It's not likely to prevent journalists from mining that information," said Kelly McBride, an expert on journalistic ethics at the Poynter Institute.
- 'Possibly not true' -
"That said, I don't think all the information contained in the emails is of public interest. And it's possible that it's not all true," she told AFP by email.
The ethics of publishing the Sony emails were challenged Sunday in an Times op-ed by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, whose credits include "The Social Network," "Moneyball" and the TV series "The Newsroom."
News media that publish the emails, he said, were "morally treasonous and spectacularly dishonorable.... As demented and criminal as it is, the hackers are doing for a cause. The press is doing it for a nickel."
His viewpoint was shared by some Sony employees.
"Browsing and spreading details about this stolen data in a public article is almost as bad as stealing it in the first place," wrote one employee on the website of Fusion, a Millennial-oriented video channel.
(Sorkin himself figures in some of the emails, including one in which Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal suggests he is "broke" and maybe sleeping with the author of a book he wanted to turn into a movie.)
- A question of balance -
John Watson, director of the journalism school at American University in Washington, said journalists in the United States are expected to balance the public interest against the potential harm that a piece of information might cause.
"In this case, the harm is just going to be reputational to a multinational corporation," he told AFP in a telephone interview.
"Journalists should not be participants in the stealing of informations," he added, "but if (such information) shows up, they have an obligation to look and it and consider if it's newsworthy, reliable and true."