How has Wikileaks changed the future of investigative journalism?

It sounds like something out of an action movie. An informant has important documents, wanting to reveal the bad deeds of an organisation. With no-where to turn to, they leak those documents through secret channels while being hunted by the organisation trying to silence them. To the surprise of many, that’s what is happening right now. Since the launch of Wikileaks, high profile document leaks have become regular in the news cycle. In addition, numerous other groups have been leaking confidential documents to the public. Formerly, the leaking of such documents had been an exclusive domain to investigative journalists with high-ranking sources. However, the launch of the internet has made this easier for sources. The question remains – how does Wikileaks, and similar organisations, shape the future of investigative journalism?

Let’s start with the history of Wikileaks. The website was registered in October 2006, but the website was not fully launched until December with the first publication leaked. The website was founded by Australian man Julian Assange, a computer hacker-turned-activist. In an interview with the New Yorker, Assange states that he started WikiLeaks out of his anti-establishment sentiment1. He also told reporters that he wanted to WikiLeaks to set a new standard of journalism – where sources of information should be free for anyone to view1. Since then, WikiLeaks has published a high number of classified documents in to the public eye.

Since then, other sites such as The Intercept, and spinoffs such as OpenLeaks, have provided many mediums for whistleblowers to ‘leak’ documents for the general public – and as such, for news organisations to analyse the contents and the data for newsworthiness. Former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) contractor Edward Snowden became infamous for his leaking of private documents revealing spying operations by the National Security Agency2. Snowden has been the subject of an international manhunt to be tried on espionage charges because of the leaks2. Wikileaks has fundamentally changed whistleblowing and investigative journalism. As described before, the ‘old method’ was for journalists to obtain high-ranking anonymous sources to seek information from3. If the story was large enough and in the public interest, then the story would be run. It had a sense of exclusivity for the news organisations involved, and could make or break reputation.

Take for example, the Watergate Scandal of 1971. Tipped off by a report about an apparent bugging of the Democratic National Committee in Washington, DC, Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward started to put pieces together in an apparent corruption scandal involving the then-US President Richard Nixon4. Woodward and Bernstein had to depend on an anonymous FBI source, who leaked to them documents crucial to the reporters’ investigations. Woodward got to know the source through a chance meeting in 19705. As a result of this collaboration and uncovering by the Washington Post, it caused the resignation of Nixon.

How is this different from, and related to Wikileaks? The Washington Post was an established newspaper. The story of the Watergate Scandal was assigned to Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who then put the story together through leaked documents and coincidental events. Wikileaks, while keeping to this same premise, is fundamentally different. WikiLeaks is not a bonafide news organisation. Julian Assange is not a trained journalist. However, because of the liberalisation of information caused by invention of the internet, Wikileaks can offer more. In addition to Wikileaks in-house journalists writing stories based on the leaked data given to them, they release the raw data and information to the public6. Assange claims that this is so the public can make their own judgement of the news6. The press coverage of the Watergate scandal, while revealing similar confidential documents, did not give the public the actual sources of information for their perusal.

So how much information is being released by Wikileaks to the general public? In a span of five years between 2010 and 2015, Wikileaks has released 798,00011 documents via its website.

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The amount of information released by Wikileaks varies, though the public perception is that Wikileaks releases information en masse. However, one release could contain thousands of documents, and another release could only release one and two. In the infographic above, major releases only happened during these releases:

  • July 2010: Iraq War Logs, a detailed recount of the US operation in Iraq between 2004-2009, as told by then-serving United States Army soldiers14.
  • November 2010: US diplomatic cables, secure messages intended only for communication between embassy and home country15.
  • April 2015: The Sony Archives, intelligence documents released after the hack of Sony Pictures16.
  • June 2015: Diplomatic cables from the Saudi Arabian Foreign Ministry17.

Of those major releases above, the Iraq War Logs and the US Diplomatic Cables caused controversy and gave Wikileaks its notoriety. The sheer amount of information may be overwhelming to journalists. However, Wikileaks makes the effort to categorise the information and to make information retrieval easier. For journalists around the world, only a fraction of the documents would be newsworthy for their intended audience, based on the judgement of that journalist’s news values. For example, in November 2010, Wikileaks released US diplomatic cables. The Guardian released raw data on the breakdown of the cables, from classification to the subject of the cable.  This is the amount of documents by classification from the 2010 release7.

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Even then, the amount of information by each category is still overwhelming. Is this  sheer amount of information released, and the notion of ‘true freedom of information’ that Wikileaks promotes good for journalists and for journalism itself? Wikileaks can be considered as a double edged sword. There is a general belief that a journalist’s role is to inform the public for their good about issues which would affect them greatly. At the same time, what risk is there to the public if the documents were to be revealed? There is considerable debate amongst the field about the contributions of Wikileaks.

In one camp, there is the argument that WikiLeaks is an evolution of the current practices of information gathering that journalists do. Queensland University of Technology senior journalism lecturer Lee Duffield believes Wikileaks is an extension of that journalists have been doing.

In addition, Cardiff University Professor Karin Wahl-Jorgensen says while WikiLeaks did challenge the traditional methods of information gathering by journalists, it is regarded by many journalists and communications academics as ‘just another source’8.  Lisa Lynch says Wikileaks, in particular the Cablegate releases, created new networks for journalists to forge in reporting for a world audience18. In addition, Ward says that the information leaked by the website makes the old method of freedom of information requests to governments look “passe”9. Activist and journalist Trevor Timm, through a post via the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that Wikileaks use of technology created “anonymous whistleblower platforms” that promotes government transparency12.

However, the other side of the argument relates to the ethics of using documents sourced from Wikileaks. Mr. Duffield warning journalists to not rush in publishing information from Wikileaks, and to consider issues of trust, confidentiality and national security.

University of Wisconsin’s Stephen J.A. Ward says that Wikileaks still has “work to do” when it comes to the organisation’s accountability9. Ward then lists questions that he would ask Wikileaks, which would include:

  Is there any information that should not be made public?9

  Does Wikileaks agree that some information should be kept secret?9

  Would WikiLeaks publish highly sensitive information like nuclear codes, or information that would risk lives?9

  What is your ‘code of ethics’ in handling such ethical dilemmas?9

A press release by the American Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) says that the “the need for information, and balancing the public’s right to know with protecting national security is exceedingly difficult.10” The Society further states that  even though Wikileaks’ true intentions of releasing classified documents is not clear, the organisation showed responsible and ethical journalism.

Activists and journalist Trevor Timm, through a post via the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says that there is a risk for journalists living in the United States to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917, a “World War I relic”12. However, the United States Government has swayed away from prosecuting journalists under this law for fear of violating the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States – the right to free speech and freedom of the press. Yale Constitutional Law professor Jack Balkin even goes further by saying the actions of Wikileaks has made journalists at risk of their jobs and their lives13.

vlcsnap-2015-10-27-16h05m24s478In conclusion, Wikileaks and similar websites with the same goal have made information gathering from government or corporate sources much simpler for journalists. What was once a risky operation to find anonymous sources to leak important information, is now a breeze through the internet. The use of Wikileaks, however, comes down to the journalists’ judgement and news values. One must take every ethical consideration to make sure the information they are publishing from Wikileaks is, most importantly, accurate, but also will not put the general public at risk. On the other hand, Wikileaks is an invaluable tool in the sourcing of information. What was a laborious process in finding anonymous sources for a report has become easy with the mass amount of documents being released by Wikileaks. In the scope of the future of investigative journalism, information gathering may have become similar, but at what cost to freedom of the press? 

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RELATED LINKS:

  1. Wikileaks Main Page – http://www.wikileaks.org
  2. The Guardian’s Visualisation of Wikileaks Data – Iraq War Logs – http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2010/oct/23/wikileaks-iraq-data-journalism
  3. The Guardian’s Visualisation of Wikileaks Data – US Diplomatic Cables – http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2010/nov/29/wikileaks-cables-data

REFERENCES

1. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/06/07/no-secrets (accessed 21st October 2015)

2. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-23123964 (accessed 21st October 2015)

3. http://www.spj.org/ethics-papers-anonymity.asp (accessed 21st October 2015)

4. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/watergate/part1.html (accessed 21st October 2015)

5. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/watergate/part4.html (accessed 21st October 2015)

6. https://wikileaks.org/About.html (accessed 21st October 2015)

7. http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2010/nov/29/wikileaks-cables-data (accessed 21st October 2015)

8. http://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/2771 (accessed 22nd October 2015)

9. https://ethics.journalism.wisc.edu/2010/08/24/how-to-reveal-secrets/  (accessed 22nd October 2015)

10. http://www.poynter.org/news/mediawire/109375/spj-ethical-journalism-prevailed-in-reporting-of-latest-wikileaks-release/ (accessed 22nd October 2015)

11. http://www.wikileaks.org (accessed 22nd October 2015)

12. https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2011/11/cablegate-one-year-later-how-wikileaks-has-influenced-foreign-policy-journalism (accessed 22nd October 2015)

13. http://balkin.blogspot.com.au/2010/12/wikileaks-and-mayflower-hotel.html (accessed 22nd October 2015)

14. https://wikileaks.org/irq/ (accessed 22nd October 2015)

15. https://wikileaks.org/cablegate.html (accessed 22nd October 2015)

16. https://wikileaks.org/saudi-cables/ (accessed 22nd October 2015)

17.  https://wikileaks.org/sony/ (accessed 22nd October 2015)

18. http://www.palgraveconnect.com.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/pc/doifinder/10.1057/9781137275745.0001 (accessed 27th October 2015)

DATA VISUALISATION REFERENCES

  1. http://www.wikileaks.org (accessed 22nd October 2015)
  2. https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AonYZs4MzlZbdEdmOURKSlA5SEtWTWlDaUgtODJWVkE&authkey=CPW5uvsF&hl=en&authkey=CPW5uvsF (accessed 22nd October 2015)