In the flurry of media coverage around WikiLeaks recently, the question of the organization’s status as a journalistic entity has risen. One needn’t look beyond “Fox News” to see the breadth of this country’s definition of news and journalism. If Fox News can be at all considered journalism, WikiLeaks is a shoe-in. Even if Fox News is left out of the picture, WikiLeaks is quite clearly a journalistic organization.
WikiLeaks’ role in the production of news is very different from that of a traditional news organization. As opposed to outlets like The New York Times or The Guardian, WikiLeaks isn’t concerned with breaking the most recent stories of general, but publishing in-depth original documents which journalists and the general public can analyze and draw conclusions about.
The thing that seems to be tripping us up here is that WikiLeaks takes the kind of material that has heretofore been leaked only to the gatekeepers of the news (who then vetted the information and published as they saw fit) and makes it accessible to virtually everyone.
In an editorial on the Threat Level blog, Wired.com’s Editor-in-Chief Evan Hansen touches on this.
WikiLeaks’ role is not the same as the press’, since it does not always endeavor to vet information prior to publication. But it operates within what one might call the media ecosystem, feeding publications with original documents that are found nowhere else and insulating them against pressures from governments seeking to suppress information.
It should come as no surprise that leaked information is beginning to bypass the traditional gatekeepers of the media – so is everything else. YouTube, blogs, Twitter, and other desktop (and mobile, for that matter) publishing services have been allowing information to bypass the editors of the mainstream media for years now. Think of WikiLeaks as the new millenium’s Drudge Report (sorry, no animations this time around). When Matt Drudge broke the Lewinsky scandal, news organizations questioned the legitimacy of an online-only news source – these doubts have faded over the years with the rise outlets like The Huffington Post.
So what is it that we question about WikiLeaks’ place in the world of journalism? The answer to this question will be of the utmost importance as the U.S. government tries to muster a legal case against them. The fact that they don’t vet their information doesn’t exclude them from the world of journalism; founder Julian Assange has said that he puts out the information so that others can judge it for themselves – there is no claim that it is all important, just that it is all there. The fact that they boldly publish anything they’re given doesn’t exclude them either (Pentagon Papers, anyone?).
The only thing that seems to separate WikiLeaks from the rest of journalism is their stubborn drive to publish everything they are given, never “killing” a story because of outside pressure. If this is truly grounds for rejecting WikiLeaks as journalistic organization, then journalism is in more trouble than we thought.
Emily Bell wrote a post today about this gap between mainstream media and WikiLeaks in her post about the implications of WikiLeaks on journalism.
Benkler however does identify a central truth: that many, if not all, news organisations are uneasy with either the philosophy or the required skills of performing the same function as Wikileaks. It would be fascinating to know, if handed the cables on a thumb drive from an original source, how many news organisations would have handed them back, or published far more selectively.