Criminal organization or whistle blowing evolution? What does WikiLeaks mean for journalists in the information age? Some would rather say it is a threat to national security, while others would say it’s a new spin on an old idea where news media and the public need “people to leak and people to dig and people to consume and explain, and people who care enough to find the documents and bring them to light,” according to Mike Sager of the Esquire, Rolling Stone and The Washington Post.
Regardless of where data comes from it always needs someone to organize and explain it, to tell its stories. That is where journalists come in.
The intent of WikiLeaks was not to harm the US, or any other nation, but simply to provide information in the interest of informing the public. Is the risk of a national threat a by-product of this that we have to deal with?
The key to a journalistic relationship with Wikileaks is to recognize it for what it is: a mass store of information. The debate between whether or not Julian Assange is a journalist is beside the point. WikiLeaks is not a person, it is an important data mine and journalists should put on their hard hats, turn on their head lamps, and dig out stories to explain this information to the public.
This is exactly what the New York Times and other news organizations did with the data at first. Assange was not fond of this idea at all. With his personal reasons unclear, we can only assume that Assange wanted news organizations to publish all that they could immediately while integrity would speak towards vetting information for truth and news value.
There has been and will always be a tension between reasonable limits to free speech and freedom of the press between the state and journalists. These and other concerns for human rights and the protection of life will necessarily ground any writing a journalist does. Unfortunately for Assange, what he presumably expected from the New York Times was tabloid coverage.
Before I go farther I will say that I am of the opinion that Assange is a character of admirable action and a journalist in his own right, this does demand a certain degree of respect. What he provides us with is content, but no platform.
University of Chicago and Northwestern University writer-in-residence Alex Kotlowitz warns against confusing a platform with content. The ordinary person does not have the time to wade through the over 1.2 million documents. The average journalist probably doesn’t either. It is a gruelling task, and the true success of Assange’s project may require him to step back on demanding respect and allow news organizations to do their job in providing that platform.
However, the Times coverage itself was far from perfect. Like The Washington Post, the Times exaggerated North Korean missile capabilities despite contrary information from a Russian informant supplied by WikiLeaks. And who can forget the false weapons of mass destruction story? These examples breed a semblance of distrust in the mainstream media that WikiLeaks blows out of the water with pure fact straight from the source.
While something’s have not changed, others have. The massive size and scope of the information a news organization encounters in a case like WikiLeaks may be a sign of things to come. Perhaps at the hands of other wiki’s we may just have a few more Enron’s in our future, perhaps something much bigger?
The internet’s freedom of information culture combined with an increasingly digital world where data can be transported rapidly and in large amounts can make for mega caches of information. Wikileaks may just be the first model. Our role as journalists remains unchanged.
Compiled with notes from Samuel Axon: The WikiLeaks Debate: Journalists Weigh In from mashable.com and Kevin Zeese: Wikileaks at the Froefront of 21st Century Journalism from antiwar.com.