What about WikiLeaks?

Posted: March 2, 2011 by trevorjnichols in #7 Ethics

A little over three months since WikiLeaks shocked diplomatic and journalistic worlds by releasing hundreds of thousands of US diplomatic cables – and Speilberg is already set to immortalize Julian Assange in film. This makes me wonder, how will people remember Assange and WikiLeaks, but also, how will we as journalists?

Even though it makes me a little ill, I think we have to think of WikiLeaks as a news organization. They are essentially doing what news organizations do – putting important information into the public sphere – even if their methods are less than ideal. Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief, Guardian News even acknowledged that the leak of US diplomatic cables is considered by some to be the greatest journalistic scoops of the last 30 years.

However, if WikiLeaks is counted among the company of major news organizations, they should also be upholding the same ethical codes as those news organizations which we most respect. Unfortunately, those organizations still haven’t really figures out how to navigate the ethical maelstrom of internet journalism.

This is why WikiLeaks is so fascinating: as a news organization they are approaching the internet medium completely differently then the “traditional” news media.

In a lot of ways what makes the internet so exciting as a medium for disseminating information is the sheer volume with which that information can be given out. There’s no page limit on the internet – so news organizations can use as much, or as little, space as they desire to explore any story. Most of them, however, have stuck to the more traditional journalistic methods: they write an article of about 750 words summarizing a story, with a few quotes from key individuals and some brief analysis.

By simply dumping raw information en mass onto the internet, WikiLeaks broke that trend, and in doing so forced us all to reconsider our ethical obligations in regards to releasing information.

Previously, most journalists considered it our duty to give the information we release context, and make sure our audience understood as much as possible the full picture. We were not just there to release information, we were there to make it as accessible and understandable as possible.

So what now? Without the limitations of pages or air time, the internet offers journalists a way to put out infinite amounts of information. In theory, if we have that ability we no longer need to contextualize anything, because our audience can go through all of the information and draw their own conclusions.

This would certainly eliminate media bias, but it would also make obsolete that journalistic eye which allows us to get to the heart of an issue and explore what really matters. Not everyone has that ability – and that is why a journalist’s outlook on an issue can be very valuable.

Ultimately, I don’t think news organizations should go the way of WikiLeaks, but perhaps they can take a lesson from the website. Context and analysis is still very important, but maybe they can supplement that with raw data available online, so readers can go and see for themselves.

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