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Summary:

The fact that even journalists and media professors can’t seem to agree on whether what WikiLeaks does is journalism emphasizes just how deeply the media and journalism have been disrupted by the web, to the point where we aren’t even sure what they are any more.

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While the U.S. government tries to determine whether what WikiLeaks and front-man Julian Assange have done qualifies as espionage, media theorists and critics alike continue to debate whether releasing those classified diplomatic cables qualifies as journalism. It’s more than just an academic question — if it is journalism in some sense, then Assange and WikiLeaks should be protected by the First Amendment and freedom of the press. The fact that no one can seem to agree on this question emphasizes just how deeply the media and journalism have been disrupted, to the point where we aren’t even sure what they are any more.

The debate flared up again on the Thursday just before Christmas, with a back-and-forth Twitter discussion involving a number of media critics and journalists, including MIT Technology Review editor and author Jason Pontin, New York University professor Jay Rosen, PhD student Aaron Bady, freelance writer and author Tim Carmody and several other occasional contributors. Pontin seems to have started the debate by saying — in a comment about a piece Bruce Sterling wrote on WikiLeaks and Assange — that the WikiLeaks founder was clearly a hacker, and therefore not a journalist.

Pontin’s point, which he elaborated on in subsequent tweets, seemed to be that because Assange’s primary intent is to destabilize a secretive state or government apparatus through technological means, then what he is doing isn’t journalism. Not everyone was buying this, however. Aaron Bady — who wrote a well-regarded post on Assange and WikiLeaks’ motives — asked why he couldn’t be a hacker and a journalist at the same time, and argued that perhaps society needs to have laws that protect the act of journalism, regardless of who practices it or what they call themselves.

Rosen, meanwhile, was adamant that WikiLeaks is a journalistic entity, period, and journalism prof and author Jeff Jarvis also echoed this point. Tim Carmody argued that the principle of freedom of the press enshrined in the First Amendment was designed to protect individuals who published pamphlets and handed them out in the street just as much as it was to protect large media entities, and Aaron Bady made a point that I have tried to make as well, which is that it’s difficult to criminalize what WikiLeaks has done without also making a criminal out of the New York Times.

This debate has been going on since before the diplomatic cables were released, ever since Julian Assange first made headlines with leaked video footage of American soliders firing on unarmed civilians in Iraq. At the time, Rosen — who runs an experimental journalism lab at NYU — called WikiLeaks “the first stateless news organization,” and described where he saw it fitting into a new ecosystem of news. Not everyone agreed, however: critics of this idea said that journalism had to have some civic function and/or had to involve journalists analyzing and sorting through the information.

Like Rosen and others, I’ve tried to argue that in the current era, media — a broad term that includes what we think of as journalism — has been dis-aggregated or atomized; in other words, split into its component parts, parts that include what WikiLeaks does. In some cases, these may be things that we didn’t even realize were separate parts of the process to begin with, because they have always been joined together. And in some cases they merge different parts that were previously separate, such as the distinction between a source and a publisher. WikiLeaks, for example, can be seen as both.

And while it is clearly not run by journalists — and to a great extent relies on journalists at the New York Times, The Guardian and other news outlets to do the heavy lifting in terms of analysis of the documents it holds and distributes — I think an argument can be made that WikiLeaks is at least an instrument of journalism. In other words, it is a part of the larger ecosystem of news media that has been developing with the advent of blogs, wikis, Twitter and all the other publishing tools we have now, which Twitter founder Ev Williams I think correctly argued are important ways of getting us closer to the truth.

Among those taking part in the Twitter debate on Thursday was Chris Anderson, a professor of media culture in New York who also writes for the Nieman Journalism Lab, and someone who has tried to clarify what journalism as an ecosystem really means and how we can distinguish between the different parts of this new process. In one post at the Nieman Lab blog, for example, he plotted the new pieces of this ecosystem on a graph with two axes: one going from “institutionalized” to “de-institutionalized” and the other going from “pure commentary” to “fact-gathering.” While WikiLeaks doesn’t appear on Anderson’s graph, it is clearly part of that process.

Regardless of what we think about Julian Assange or WikiLeaks — or any of the other WikiLeaks-style organizations that seem to be emerging — this is the new reality of media. It may be confusing, but we had better start getting used to it.

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  1. I don’t see Wikileaks as a journalistic entity or even a whistle blowing entity. I see it as a self-important, self-righteous entity. There was no thought, research or consideration to the consequences in the action. it was the logical end to a paparazzi ethos.
    What Aftenposten in Norway is doing with the Wikileak documents is journalism. They have their reporters going over the information to find what should be covered; what actually affects the reading public.
    I remember when I was a copy clerk in a daily paper and a reporter was looking for corruption in city government. He attained copies of city council phone records and was going through them a page at a time and after many weeks, he found the “smoking gun.” He could have just posted the material in the paper and let others do the work, but he was the journalist, not the source.
    According the the SPJ code of ethics, A journalist is first to seek truth and report it. He is not to seek out opinion, which many of the documents leaked are, but facts. Assange did not seek out truth, he merely pushed a button without concern. And in that, he violated the second ethic of the code: Minimize Harm. Whole nations are now put at risk, not to mention thousands of individuals. Yes, some are just embarrassed, but many are going to die because of this and for no good reason other than to promote his own agenda. In that area he violates the third ethic:
    Act independently and avoid conflicts of interest. Assange has stated he has an agenda, no less than any other idealogue. He is not objective.
    Finally, he violates the fourth ethic: to be accountable. He is seeking immunity from everything, even his own personal indiscretions. He has no one he answers to. He is his own God.
    So in the end, Assange and Wikileaks violates the very core of journalism and should not receive the same protections.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Lou. I can see your point about the filtering of the information, but I’m not sure whether you’re aware that WikiLeaks hasn’t published any cables — or any names — that haven’t appeared elsewhere, and has in fact worked with the NYT and other outlets to redact documents to minimize harm.

      1. Totally understand that point, but the questions was “Is what Wikileaks does journalism?” The answer, still, is no. They are a source and a very public one at that.
        If Assange, as a private person, went to the Washington Post or the NYT or any other organization bound by ethics and said he had 250,000 documents revealing state secrets from various countries and that he believed there was information that was vital for the public to know, then I would honor the journalists’ duty to keep him confidential and I would respect the work that the journalists did to bring the necessary information to light. I would also expect the journalists to allow the principals involved to have and chance to respond and, possibly, bring additional light to the reports.
        What he did, though, was both petty and potentially dangerous and not what I would call journalism.

  2. I’m wondering about this whole debate on several levels.

    But first of all – why has the people of wikileaks to be journalists (apart from the fact that some of them are)?

    First amendment is only for journalists? Can a normal (world) citizen not express thoughts, opinion and facts based on it?

    Everybody who falls the trap of discussing the wired idea that what wikileaks does isn’t journalism is either actively pushing the propaganda of the old powers which fear change or has already fall for that spin.

    And while you discussing you forget to look on the cables and think about what has to change in a world where governmental secrets killing people everyday and betraying the rest of the world.

    Influencing copyright laws in several european countries, e.g., by threating with economic power etc. is the character of an evil force and not of a free country which tries to change the world for good by giving good example.

    Don’t fall this trap – start thinking about the real consequences of cablegate.

    1. Good points, Jens — thanks for the comment.

  3. I believe a more accurate question would be whether the first admendment (only) covers journalism? Start by redefining press in a 21st century where our technologies are far more advanced than when the first admendment was passed.

  4. Going by this definition set in ’07 and as far as I can find, not revised since that date, wikileaks is unequivocally journalism.

    http://www.citmedialaw.org/blog/2007/senate-judiciary-committee-endorses-federal-shield-bill

    1. “The term ‘journalism’ means the regular gathering, preparing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting, or publishing of news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public.”
      What Assange did was neither regular nor news. It was primarily conversation about speculative concepts, not what was actually done. What he reported was high-level gossip. He did no writing, no editing, no recording, no photographing, no collecting, no preparing.
      He merely transmitted electronic files. That makes him a file clerk, not a journalist.
      He was not exercising his right of free speech because none of that was his speech. It was the speech of others. It was private communication.
      He is not a journalist.

      1. I think your misunderstanding the definition. Now whether that is purposely done or not, I don’t know, but have my suspicions.

        Regular in this definition is meant in the terms of ‘cyclic’. As in the regular duties. And there’s an ‘or’ in there, not an ‘and’.

        He didn’t transmit electronic files, he recived them. This makes him no less of a journalist than any other media entity.

        He doesn’t need to exercise his right to free speech, he isn’t American. He doesn’t fall under our laws, I don’t understand what’s so hard to understand about that.

        If this isn’t journalism, then neither is the NYT, MSNBC, CNN, or Fox News.

      2. Marshall Kirkpatrick Lou Covey Saturday, December 25, 2010

        He did a whole lot of preparing. Otherwise the rest of the soca would be easy to find and he couldn’t have negotiated with several of the most reputable media orgs in the world. At the very leastthe man is a pretty good administrator and we should credit him that.

  5. It is NOT journalism to release private communications solely for the purpose of embarrassing people. The people responsible for putting those documents in the hands of the Assange people. He reminds me of the kid in the classroom who saw it his duty to interrupt continually in an effort to prevent other students from learning and to convince his classmates he was smarter than the teacher. This is totally counter-productive.

  6. Is Wikipedia journalism? If the answer is yes, then the same goes for Wikileaks. Both of these make available a vast research resource, generated by mass online contribution &/or editing, which I would consider as journalistic/press activities, but a new collective kind journalism.

    It is notable just how judicious they have been in not publishing so-called ‘sources and methods,’ as you have pointed out in your response above.

  7. There is the wider question of whether these leaks are responsible use of free speech.

    We must remember that, in a democracy, if the majority of the public feel that the current rights are being abused, the law – and even the constitution – can be changed by the public.

    Wikileaks has as its goal the tearing down of “the system”. Since large public majorities do not aspire to that goal, we are seeing a use of the free-speech rights for a purpose that the majority do not support.

    We may lose public support for current free speech laws, which would (in my opinion) be a disaster.

  8. I don’t understand why people need to argue about this! journalism is reporting news and making that information available to public! i think that is what julian exactly did and his act qualifies to be journalism. the impact of the news should not be the standard to decide if reporting somethig is journalism or not!

  9. What Wikileaks does is not journalism.

    They provide a service to journalists.

    Regardless of whether they are journalists or not, whistleblowing should be protected.

    And in any case Wikileaks is not American so legally it shouldn’t matter.

    1. your clearly one of the more unintelligent people on this posting.

  10. Julian Assange is guilty of revealing information which the US would prefer to keep secret in order to maintain the safety and stability of the country.

    Similarly, many imprisoned Chinese dissidents are guilty of revealing information which China would prefer to keep secret in order to maintain the safety and stability of the country yet these people continue to garner the support of Western governments.

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