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Is What WikiLeaks Does Journalism? Good Question

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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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Post and thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr users New Media Days and Yan Arief

63 Responses to “Is What WikiLeaks Does Journalism? Good Question”

  1. I consider Wikileaks journalism and a harbinger of true transparency in government and corporations. I consider wikileaks more journalistic then the news actors on the 3 major propaganda cable media stations who are just reading a prompter and never cover stories that may make America look bad.

  2. I think your misunderstanding the definition. Now whether this was done intentionally or not, I do not know, but I have suspicions.

    Regular in this definition is meant in terms of “cyclic”. As in the usual duties. And there is “or” there, rather than “and”.

    He did not send electronic files, it Recived them. That makes him no less a journalist than any other person the media.

    He must not exercise his right to freedom of speech, it is not an American. He does not fall under our laws, I do not understand what is so difficult to understand that.

    If this is not journalism, then neither the New York Times, MSNBC, CNN or Fox News

  3. Bystander

    Although I can’t class Wikileaks as journalism, I think it’s closer to what journalism was in the past than any news media outlet of the present, ie: the facts without the spin or the mass hysteria. Maybe we’re just not used to it anymore.

  4. If you can destabilize the self-destructive tendencies of an organization early enough, the organization might be able to survive it own bad behavior before revolition might become necessary. Do you really think the “founding fathers” cared whether the inquisitive eyes of the time were called “journalists”?! The point was to prevent the government of the day from imposing tyranny on the people? I am personally astounded to find the mix of bedfellows that are assembled in condemning this man.

  5. Wikileaks did nothing but publish what somebody else gave them. If you put up your own blog, title it “Please Post Classified docs here”, Google indexes it, and some person posts classified information, does that make you a terrorist? Does AT&T bear responsibility for transmitting the classified information to your computer after you found it on the Google search, if you happen to use AT&T to get to the internet? The attacks on Wikileaks are from the most stupid people ever to grace the political stage. Sarah Palin? Give me a break. go back to milking moose in Alaska. Assange is no more a criminal than GoDaddy, Network Solutions, or the New York times. The person who leaked the latest embarrassing items is already in jail. Enough said. Why isn’t the media attacking the IT security people responsible for protecting these profound secrets? Because that would be too easy, and reveal the obviously lax data security our elected officials use. All this press rhetoric is simply the media training the public to desire some legislation which will be forthcoming to “protect” us, but which will really shave away even more rights from us. Just wait and watch.
    We are being played, herded and readied for the usual milking.

  6. How long does it take you people to realize that the guy is innocent. Blame the kid in the Army. No one does that because then everyone will blame the army. They use Assange as a scapegoat to hide the real blame. The source is the kid not the press. Down with NYTimes too if you want to say Assange is in the wrong. People think these cables are treason…. the guys not an American citizen. Whats happening now, the delay, is people trying to determine if they can blame him for things that other news sites may not have done. Its lawyers and govnment, mainly USA, looking for a way to make this all go away (aka BLAME it on someone else) Just live up to what it was and try and correct it.

  7. knighta1949

    This debate over whether Wikileaks is really journalism, may be just another example of Americans defining a global debate in their parochial terms. Assange, an Australian, has been held in a British jail for a crime he allegedly committed in Sweden. It’s true, he’s really wanted for revealing what your government had been saying and doing to the rest of us. As a result, certain American politicians want him forced to the USA to face their style of justice.

    Wikileaks has shown exactly what this justice really means, when you move beyond the figleaf of US constitutional rights.

    Freedom of speech is a global issue, defined by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document which reaches beyond the US constitution.

  8. Nathan Gonzalez

    If only press can be protected by the 1st Amendment we’re in trouble. Every human being should be. Don’t you think?

    Wether Assange is/was a hacker or not it is pointless in this discussion. How many people out there (sportists, politicians, businessmen, celebrities, etc…) are part of the press machinery and the news? Are all the bloggers Journalists? Does this means that if a blogger writes about the cables it is not protected by the first amendment? Should we demonize the WP platform or Matt Mullenger cos certain citizens are using them to talk about embarrassing things for the governments?

    Seriously, we’re starting to lose rights gained over hundreds of years ago… Please just use your common sense.

    Freedom of speech definition: “Freedom of speech is the freedom to speak freely without censorship or limitation, or both. The synonymous term freedom of expression is sometimes used to indicate not only freedom of verbal speech but any act of seeking, receiving and imparting information or ideas, REGARDLESS OF THE MEDIUM USED.”

    WikiLeaks is a pioneer medium/tool for journalism that enables and helps the flow of information freely, without censorship, facilitating therefore to exercise our right of “freedom of speech/expression”.

    This is the essence of WikiLeaks. If this is a bad thing, as I said, we’re in serious trouble.

  9. If Assange was Chinese and the documents were related to the Chinese government we would all be calling him a fighter for democracy and transparency. Maybe a Nobel Prize would be coming his way. In other countries I don’t see people calling Assange a terrorist. As a citizen I want to know what governments are doing and Assange has made me more informed. For that I thank him.

    • Just for clarification, only Joe Biden is calling him a terrorist. Joe Biden regularly says stupid things. Other countries are calling him a spy and Sweden calls him a rapist. At present, there are 187 warrants for his arrest under espionage acts and 1 for sexual assault. There are no warrants for his arrest from the United States, but under current NAT) and ANZUS treaties (even his home country wants to arrest him), the US is obliged to honor those warrants.

      • Wow, the level of ignorance in this discussion is amazing.

        @Lou, it is always good to get facts correct would you not agree? Especially in a debate about what constitutes journalism.

        There are not 187 warrants for Assange’s arrest, only 1 for sexual misconduct in Sweden. If you ‘know’ of any others please share them with us (and also the police).

        His home country does not want him arrested. The Australian Federal Police explicitly stated that neither he nor wikileaks have broken any Australian laws.

        The ANZUS alliance is a defence agreement between the US, Australia & New Zealand. It has nothing to do with policing & extradition.

        Neither wikileaks nor Assange are subject to US law (unless they visit the US). He is not a US citizen and does not operate in the US. As such, he cannot by definition commit acts of treason against the US.

        With these facts out of the way, perhaps we could have a real discussion about Wikileaks and journalism.

        It is just my personal observation, but those that claim that what wikileaks does is not journalism, seem to be getting their information from sources that are journalists in name only.

      • Dave,
        188 countries are bound by treaty to issue warrants in support of Interpol warrants. The agreement includes the treaties between Australia and the US.
        The point is moot since he surrendered himself.
        Regarding who is a journalist, I can open a mans head with a bone saw, but it doesn’t make me a brain surgeon. That some one can write something, or steal some content from somewhere else and publish it, does not make that person a journalist.
        It is a profession, not a hobby and not a tool for a personal agenda

  10. Some of the other commenters have suggested that freedom of the press is restricted to journalists and that it is, or should be, necessary for a person to satisfy a number of requirements in order to be considered a journalist. That is not what the US constitution says. It is quite clear actually, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Period.

    Freedom of the press applies to ANYONE who publishes information or ideas…after all you do not need to be a journalist to operate a press. Wikileaks is a publisher (as is anyone with website) and are therefore entitled to this freedom.

    Thomas Jefferson, who is probably turning in his grave over the behavior of the US Government, had this to say on the freedom of the press, “They fill their newspapers with falsehoods, calumnies and audacities. I shall protect them in their right of lying and calumniating.”

    And in conclusion, ironically from an American GOVERNMENT website, “One sign of the importance of a free press is that when antidemocratic forces take over a country, their first act is often to muzzle the press.” – [ ]

    • Michael, I am not talking about freedom of speech. The question is, is it journalism? Should we have laws on the books stopping Assange from doing what he is doing? No, and that is not the question. Should we have laws prohibiting the publication of pornography? No, but that is not the question.
      Should Assange be granted immunity from laws regarding the theft of non-public documents because he is a journalist? Ah, that is the question. There are laws that grant immunity to journalists on issues like this. Why? Because professional journalists ascribe to a basic code of ethics and do take some effort to hold other journalists accountable to those ethics. Assange is not being held accountable by the profession he claims to represent. He is not identified clearly by that profession. He is, in essence, a transmitter of stolen property. He is a fence. Is he a whistle blower? No wrong doing has been identified in everything he has produced. He has merely endangered the lives of people who have been sworn to protect the people of various nations.
      If a newspaper got ahold of and published information regarding a raid on the perpetrators of the Twin Tower attack, allowing them to escape, they would have been crucified not only by the press worldwide, but possibly be subject to prosecution, if not face civil trials for endangering lives.
      Assange has the right to print whatever he likes, but that does not give him freedom from the consequences of his actions.
      More to the point, we are arguing a right that basically does not exist anywhere else int he world as a matter of law. Freedom of speech is culturally accepted as a status quo, but not a matter of constitutional law. Right now, Assange is not be prosecuted for Wikileaks, but for physical assault on another human being, which speaks volumes about his real intentions. He is also not being prosecuted for anything in the US, but in countries that do not recognize freedom of speech as an absolute.
      For that matter, freedom of speech in the US is not an absolute but tempered by the right of others to personal safety.
      But again, that is not the question. The question is, is it journalism.
      The answer is, no.

  11. I thought we’d all decided that what Woodward and Bernstein did in letting us know what “Deepthroat” said, was journalism. What’s not journalism is what Judy Miller did in parroting administration scoops about the WMD in Iraq.

  12. Mathew;
    I put that way, let’s say that my wife is cheating on me, and my friend find out and tell me. But the way he found out was very “right”. Should I be mad at my friend or my wife? Should I forgive my wife and say “sorry, my firend should not be there”. I just don’t get people? What is journalism? Fox news? Mail Online?

  13. The discussion should be how we gona remove corrupted gov’t and create on that works, how we gona funish all involved in the genociede created by huge money making war machine. But now, that is way far from us logical humas confort zone. So let’s talks about a broken condom and how journalist should or should not be. Just keep in mind, the next victims can be me, you or your loved one. Maybe them we wake up, Sad!

  14. Fouad Al Sayes

    The west beleive that media should remain free and must remain without any interferance from any one, who is he. As such its free world and should deemed to be remain as it should.
    I feel what is been published as upto know it real, and dealing with fact, as true, deepending on honesty. A normal person will understand that, and its he right to know what is going.
    I hope that this matter will not effect any party involved in, and must be protected by the concern authority.
    In order to keep up the free world surviave withour any interfereance from any one.

  15. Great article, however in situations that involve Twitter discussions and multiple posts I would greatly suggest using a curation tool such as Storify to put together all the relevant information and give a clearer idea of how the conversation developed.

    Your analysis and writing is great but having all the original sources in one place would greatly enhance the value of a post and add a lot of context.

    Regards and congratulations

    • Thanks for the suggestion. I’m a fan of Storify, and I think I could easily have used it in this case, but I chose not to because adding all of those tweets makes a post quite long, and I was afraid that some readers might find it too lengthy to get through. I did link to all of the relevant tweets though.

  16. It is interesting that noone here mentions Watergate scandal which was brought to the public by a source, a man who worked for the Government, who provided confidention „tips” and inspired *invastigative journalism*.

    Years after, we have a man/people who work/s for the government and who provide/s a confidential data. The difference is that now the source can easily bring that RAW data to the public, help by a media.

    Wikileaks is the media by which this data is published, same as it was Washington Post.

    Wikileaks is a journalism, without a doubt. It’s a simple anwser to your “good” question.

    p.s. even if Assange isn’t a professional journalist, which doesn’t really matter, we have something called “citizen journalism”.

  17. 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.

  18. James Crawford

    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.

  19. 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!

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

    • “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.

      • 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.

      • Marshall Kirkpatrick

        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.

  23. 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.

  24. Jens Best

    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.

  25. 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.

    • 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.

      • 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.