Is WikiLeaks ‘real’ journalism?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Writing in the aftermath of the several high profile WikiLeaks publications including the Collateral Murder video and the Afghanistan and Iraq War Logs, News Corporation journalist Brad Norington set out on a crusade against online media, and more specifically, against WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange.

In an August 2010 article for The Australian titled “WikiLeaks vigilante denies having blood on his hands over disclosures”, Norington argued that traditional media “retains an important accountability role in a modern democracy” unlike bloggers whose “fast-and-loose values” include “no editing, no standards, no accountability, no responsibility”.

He did not differentiate between WikiLeaks and bloggers, instead arguing they share questionable ethics.

Like traditional media, bloggers are a diverse group and should not be generalised as one collective holding the same regulatory standards — because clearly, they do not.

A paper from the 2005 conference, Blogging, Journalism & Credibility: Battleground and Common Sense, held at Harvard, found that: “While some blogging is journalism, much of it isn’t and doesn’t aim to be”.

WikiLeaks, however, is certainly an example of online publishing that should be considered journalism. Like those responsible mainstream media publications, WikiLeaks adheres to a rigorous vetting and editing process before publishing data it receives.

Still, Norington said the documents released by WikiLeaks had the potential to “lead to the death of many people”.

He used the findings and advice of print news journalists to evidence this claim, noting that reporters from The Times found “names, villages, relatives’ names and even precise GPS locations of Afghans who had co-operated with US-led forces” uncensored in the documents published by WikiLeaks.

Norington also said that reporters from The Guardian and Der Spiegel, who worked with Assange to publish leaked information, “encouraged Assange ‘to be careful about the lethal harm that could come to people identified in the logs if he released certain documents unredacted’”.

Norington said that Assange did not follow this advice.

But he also said “Assange claims he went to great lengths to omit from almost 92,000 documents any information that could put local Afghans in harm's way”. This implies that a process does exist at WikiLeaks to look for material that may require omission prior to publication, and that the process was followed in this instance.

Assange explained WikiLeaks editing process in a July 2010 video interview with TED.com’s Chris Anderson.

Assange discussed WikiLeaks’ process of obtaining and publishing information. He said that after receiving information from sources, WikiLeaks staff “vet it like a regular news organisation”, editing sensitive personally identifying information and checking authenticity before publication.

He noted that prior to the release of a video now known as Collateral Murder, which depicted the killing of a dozen people in Iraq by US military, two people from the WikiLeaks team were sent to Baghdad to further investigate the story.

This information is contrary to Norington’s claim that WikiLeaks, who he lumps together with bloggers, have “no editing” and “no standards”.

Norington claimed WikiLeaks “could have led to further causalities by feeding a Taliban ‘hit list’”, but he offered no evidence of documents published by WikiLeaks causing the death or suffering of any individual.



Nor did Norington give evidence that any individual has been targeted because of information released by WikiLeaks.

Norington’s piece also bought in to a popular criticism levelled at the organisation, designed to play down the importance of WikiLeaks publications, saying that they reveal “nothing new”.

This argument implies Norington has reviewed all 76,000 documents (that he refers to in his article) released by WikiLeaks, and is therefore at liberty to make this judgment.

Norington concluded his piece with vague reference to the “important accountability role in a modern democracy” that the “Fourth Estate” plays. The Fourth Estate refers to print journalism or more broadly news media, a group to which Norington makes clear he thinks WikiLeaks does not belong.

He conceded the “Fourth Estate might not be perfect”. Certainly not, as the ongoing saga about Murdoch’s News of the World in Britain suggests. Its reporters face allegations of phone hacking — a fairly decent example of the imperfection of some print media.

And yet Norington’s attack is not on journalists who have been shown to deliberately weaken the integrity of the field with their unscrupulous methods.

Rather his criticism is aimed at the new kids on the block, those publishing online, but mainly those with mass impact and notoriety publishing online: Assange and WikiLeaks.

So back to that comparison between WikiLeaks, bloggers and the “Fourth Estate”.

Norington holds up that WikiLeaks does not play a similar “accountability role”. Perhaps Norington would’ve chosen to argue differently had he been writing in the aftermath of the release of the diplomatic cables, though perhaps not.

There are many examples of WikiLeaks upholding democracy and holding power to account.

In the TED.com interview, Assange said WikiLeaks' 2007 leak of a report exposing the corruption of former Kenyan president Danial arup Moi “shifted the vote by 10% according to a Kenyan intelligence report, which changed the result of the election”.

Of course, WikiLeaks is not the only example of online journalistic integrity.

There are certainly bloggers that are noteworthy for their eyewitness reporting and commitment to providing voices not often covered in our news media.

In his 2003 academic paper, Paul Andrews said the role of bloggers was “a valuable adjunct to-but not substitute for-quality journalism”.

In support of citizen journalism and blogging, Andrews said blogger Salam Pax’s reporting on the Iraq War from inside Baghdad was some of the “best eyewitness reporting during the war”.

Norington is far from the only traditional journalist critical of WikiLeaks and online journalism or blogging in general. But why do some journalists hate WikiLeaks?

Is it because the organisation is not only holding to account our governments and corporations, but also our journalists?

WikiLeaks is a game-changer, encouraging a scientific approach to journalism, where source documents are provided alongside stories, and empowering the reader to decide if the report is fair and accurate.

Legitimate journalism does exist online. WikiLeaks is a shining example of this. It encourages a democratic public discourse that holds our leaders accountable for the war and diplomacy they carry out in our name.

From GLW issue 875