COLUMN: Wikileaks should practice responsible journalism

Wednesday, August 4, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:03 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The date of an event at the Frontline Club has been corrected.

LONDON – On a nondescript street near Paddington Station in London, something was leaking.

Information. Sensitive, classified military information.

It originated from the attic space of an inconspicuous brick building, where clicking computer keys provided the soundtrack to a scene of leather chairs, framed black and white photographs and a haphazardly placed wine glass.

I had stumbled, thanks to my internship, into what appeared to be the locus of a crack intelligence operation. But the setting of a supermarket mystery novel this was not. It was a room belonging to the Frontline Club, London's choice locale for posh newsperson schmoozing.

At that moment it was also the location of Julian Assange, the notoriously elusive mastermind behind WikiLeaks, a website that has, in the past few months, altered the landscapes of the media and intelligence universes.

On July 26, the Club's attic was the stage for a media event at which Assange answered questions regarding his site's latest triumph in transparency: The release of some 91,000 Afghanistan war logs classified by the Pentagon.

Now, just one day later, Assange paced the floor of the quiet, empty space as he delivered a phone interview to a radio station. Sporting neutral, unremarkable clothing and his trademark white hair, he didn't seem particularly comparable to a director of the CIA, FBI or NSA – yet that is precisely the type of figure Assange has become, with greater recognition and more allure.

WikiLeaks could be the largest and most sophisticated intelligence organization ever run for and by the public, and it is redefining the manner in which governments, corporations and news outlets conduct business.

In its relentless pursuit of transparency, WikiLeaks could be journalism's last best hope. But does the website go too far, risking national security in the wake of the document leak?

In the three years since its inception, WikiLeaks' bare-bones website has published documents ranging from Guantanamo Bay operating procedures to Sarah Palin's personal e-mails. Its operations are steeped in paranoia: The site is hosted on servers across multiple countries and is heavily encrypted. Its document submission model is so secure and successful that it is already being eyed by news organizations hungry for more information from sources.

Interestingly, the site has exploded just as the business of top secret intelligence in the United States has been expanding astronomically. According to the Washington Post, some 854,000 Americans currently possess top secret security clearance, a number that has grown dramatically since 9/11.

There is more classified information available to leak than ever before and more people to encourage the seepage. The whole world, it seems, is aching to play spy games and it's easier than ever before.

In the age of WikiLeaks, everyone is a spy of sorts. But could the line between intelligence gathering and newsgathering also be blurring beyond recognition?

The people behind WikiLeaks have insisted repeatedly that they are simply a source for leaks, not a member of the press. In The New Yorker, Assange's colleague Rop Gonggrijp was quoted as saying, "The source is no longer dependent on finding a journalist who may or may not do something good with his document."

At what point does an entity work so closely with the press that it becomes its own media outlet?

Throughout its existence, Wikileaks has increasingly employed and manipulated press exposure to achieve its goals. Most recently, the organization granted three newspapers (The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel) advanced access to the Afghanistan war logs. When they released the controversial video in April of American soldiers firing on Afghan civilians, WikiLeaks and Assange chose to unveil the video on a slow news day, the day after Easter Sunday, for maximum impact.

WikiLeaks looks like a news outlet and often acts like one, but comes with no guarantee of responsible news judgment and reporting. Open documents are what fuel excellent journalism and vitalize our democracy, but reporting on classified information must always be performed with the safety of our troops in mind.

At first, it seemed the website had acted with due caution in releasing secret documents; President Barack Obama implied as much in a statement last week.

"While I'm concerned about the disclosure of sensitive information from the battlefield that could potentially jeopardize individuals or operations," President Obama said, "the fact is, these documents don't reveal any issues that haven't already informed our public debate on Afghanistan."

Now, though, it appears the site could present more of a risk to soldiers and civilians on the ground than previously thought. The Taliban announced that it is searching the war logs and plans to "hunt down" informants named in the documents.

Indeed, the website may have crossed a terrifyingly thin line. War is a fragile beast, and the slightest misstep can draw blood.

In its great power, WikiLeaks holds to responsibility to practice responsible journalism, whether it considers itself "press" or not. In leaking documents, we must know when to plug the hole.

Rebecca Berg is interning at CBS News and studying in London this summer through a Missouri School of Journalism study abroad program. She will return to the Missourian as an assistant city editor in the fall.

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Andrew Hansen August 4, 2010 | 9:03 a.m.

Wikileaks is journalism?

(Report Comment)
Katherine Reed August 4, 2010 | 10:37 a.m.

Andrew, hey this is Katherine Reed. I teach reporting here and work with students at the Missourian. I find your question intriguing. I'm going to ask my students to answer it and get back to you soon in this space with the consensus. Thanks for the comment.

(Report Comment)
Holly Henry August 4, 2010 | 10:40 a.m.

Other sources haven't "employed and manipulated press exposure to achieve [their] goals," Ms. Berg? I don't think you've made a very persuasive case that Wikileaks is a media outlet, and that's aside from whether or not any media outlet really practices "responsible journalism" on a regular basis these days or whether anything Wikileaks has published really put the soldiers on the ground more in harm's way than the war itself has done.

(Report Comment)
Andrew Hansen August 4, 2010 | 3:12 p.m.

"I'm going to ask my students to answer it and get back to you soon in this space with the consensus."
I would love to hear the minority opinions also.

(Report Comment)
Vaughan Smith August 5, 2010 | 4:17 a.m.

Responsible journalism...where are we finding that then these days in an industry that loses its calling as fast as its funding?

Wikileaks isn't risking national security. You, as an American journalist, might feel that it's latest release impacts American security, but Wikileaks declares itself as a transnational organisation. There is a world out there and leaks of this scale cannot be understood without perspective.

The Frontline Club emerged from an agency of independent video journalists in the 1990's, half of whom were killed in the course of their work. It exists to champion independent journalism rather then deliver a venue for posh newspersons to natter.

And we are proud of our street!

Vaughan Smith, founder, Frontline Club

(Report Comment)
Katherine Reed August 9, 2010 | 11:36 a.m.

Andrew, I apparently stumped most of my students because there were only two comments on the blog post on whether Wikileaks is journalism. Here they are for your perusal:

(Report Comment)

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