Lessons learned from WikiLeaks
By now the pundits who have weighed in on the latest WikiLeaks posting of confidential U.S. diplomatic communications may actually outnumber the 251,287 documents that were leaked. Bloggers and columnists of all stripes have poked, prodded, condemned and cheered the release of the documents (or, if you’d prefer, the antiquated “cables”).
Now, it’s my turn. Here are three areas in which the WikiLeaks story has impact for publishers.
Alliances of old and new media
Partnerships take many forms in the digital space. The alliance between WikiLeaks, a flag-bearer of new-age content dissemination, and the “old media” outlets it shared its confidential documents with (the New York Times, the U.K.’s Guardian, Germany’s Der Spiegel, France’s Le Monde and Spain’s El Pais) is emblematic of how the rules of engagement are changing. WikiLeaks explained the partnership in its grammatically challenged FAQ:
WikiLeaks makes to a promise to its sources: that will obtain the maximum possible impact for their release. Doing this requires journalists and researchers to spend extensive periods of time scrutinising the material. The established partners chosen were among the few with the resources necessary to spend many weeks ahead of publication making a start on their analysis.
WikiLeaks says it will “continue seeking media partners to work on the embassy cables.” (Maybe it can partner with some copy editors, too.)
Lesson learned: Content partnerships are unavoidable in the new world of 24/7 publishing. The collaboration among the five global news organizations was as noteworthy as their alliance with WikiLeaks itself. George Washington University media professor Mark Feldstein called the collaboration “unprecedented and to be commended.” Publishers have to be both creative and discerning in their search for content partnerships. You cannot simply ignore a site like WikiLeaks because it is “non-journalistic” – because if you can’t find ways to partner with these sites, you will be competing against them.
Admittedly, sites like WikiLeaks are causing a great deal of discomfort among traditional publishers – even the New York Times, which has benefited so directly from the WikiLeaks documents. Executive Editor Bill Keller emphasized that the Times actually received the U.S. embassy documents from the Guardian, not WikiLeaks, and stressed that WikiLeaks is not a “media partner.”
The news outlets that received the documents provided the analysis that WikiLeaks had sought. The Times in particular detailed the extent of its diligence in examining the documents, redacting particularly sensitive information, and sharing its efforts with its publishing partners as well as the U.S. State Department.
WikiLeaks said it too asked the State Department “to provide the titles of the cables which we should look at with extra care,” but “the State Department refused to provide that information, or negotiate any other arrangement.”
Guardian UK columnist Simon Jenkins chronicled the due diligence for Huffington Post:
Dozens of names were removed, sources concealed and any danger to current operations censored. Diplomatic agencies were also given the opportunity to warn of risky areas and their views logged and taken into account. Each of the recipient media cross-checked with each other and with WikiLeaks itself.
On Salon, however, Glenn Greenwald had more contempt than congratulations for the steps taken by the Times and other news organizations.
Most political journalists rely on their relationships with government officials and come to like them and both identify and empathize with them. By contrast, WikiLeaks is truly adversarial to those powerful factions in exactly the way that these media figures are not. … Just look at how important it was for Bill Keller to emphasize that the Government is criticizing WikiLeaks but not The New York Times; having the Government pleased with his behavior is his metric for assessing how good his "journalism" is. If the Government is patting him on the head, then it's proof that he acted "responsibly."
Steven Aftergood, who tracks government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, cautioned against WikiLeaks’ unfettered approach to publishing confidential material. "They have an anarchist sensibility,” he told USA Today. “They do not respect any restrictions on disclosure whether they are due to security or personal privacy or intellectual property or whatever it may be. That has the potential to be very destructive."
Blogger Frank Furedi was more direct on Spiked, an independent UK political and cultural website. He wrote: “This idea that the publication of private conversations and communications is in the public interest – whether it’s done by tabloids or by sanctimonious candidates for the next Pulitzer Prize – is a self-serving attempt to present voyeurism as an important public duty.”
Lesson learned: The Times and its partners deserve praise for adding their own layers of investigative analysis to the raw documents provided by WikiLeaks. It’s a needed reminder that in today’s world of copy-and-paste, 24/7 publishing, too few journalists take the time to properly vet information and sources.
Unfortunately, most publishers no longer have the resources (staff or money) to devote to long-term, high-impact investigative projects. As much short-term lift as the Times will get from its series on the WikiLeaks documents, investigative journalism no longer pays the bills. Which is why we’re now transitioning to …
User-generated investigative journalism
Forbes, in a cover story on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, dubbed Assange “the prophet of a coming age of involuntary transparency” and described the state of what might be called user-generated investigative journalism:
WikiLeaks adds another, new form of corporate data breach: It offers the conscience-stricken and vindictive alike a chance to publish documents largely unfiltered, without censors or personal repercussions, thanks to privacy and encryption technologies that make anonymity easier than ever before.
How popular has WikiLeaks become? Forbes notes that the site had to shut down its document-submission system in October because “it was receiving more information than it could find resources to publish, thousands of additions a day at some points.” Quoting Assange: “Our pipeline of leaks has been increasing exponentially as our profile rises.”
The Times’ Keller doesn’t believe WikiLeaks has changed the face of investigative journalism – at least not long term. He was pushed on this point by John Hockenberry on The Takeaway from the BBC:
Hockenberry: You often use sources from diplomatic sources who speak off the record or who speak anonymously about things, all of a sudden there's a new channel for sourced diplomatic material which has a different degree of candor maybe than what your reporters are getting. It changes the way you're an international correspondent, it seems.
Keller: It does, but only temporarily: This is a one-time window. It's quite extraordinary. … But this isn't going to happen again, is my bet. As far as we know all of this material, including the earlier leaks of military dispatches... I don't know this for a fact but what I've read the suspicion is that it all came from one disgruntled army analyst who is under arrest at the moment. So I don't think we're going to have regular access to this kind of diplomatic confidences.
Keller underestimates the number of people who are “disgruntled” with the government, corporations, or any other entity in a position of power – the people who will continue to fuel WikiLeaks and similar sites.
Lesson learned: Whistleblowers prefer WikiLeaks over traditional news outlets for a simple reason: They can upload documents anonymously. Shield laws have proven ineffective in allowing journalists to protect their sources, so why wouldn’t someone deliver sensitive information to WikiLeaks instead, knowing that if it’s big enough, the mainstream press will eventually pick it up?
Publishers may consider building their own WikiLeaks knockoff that enable sources to turn over documents in a similarly anonymous manner. But they will need to take the legal risk of receiving what the courts might consider stolen property. (WikiLeaks, with its loosely structured global organization, is a much harder legal target.) One possible solution: Move your data servers to Iceland, which is taking steps to become a “global safe haven for investigative journalism.”