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Knight Center


WikiLeaks: No substitute for journalism?

More than a week after the latest WikiLeaks revelation exposed secret diplomatic cables, the controversial whistleblower site and its founder, Julian Assange, still find themselves at the center of a debate over ethics, freedom of speech, and what it means to be a journalist.

In The Huffington Post, Larry Womack slams Assange, who he says "has consistently shown himself to have no ethical standards as a journalist, blogger or human being." Further, he criticizes bloggers' and Internet commentators' support of Assange: "Here's a thought: If you're a blogger who cares about getting the newsworthy information out, why not download the documents, redact the sensitive information, and post the results or relevant details on your own blog? Oh, right -- that would be big boy reporter work, which is elitist and so very 1999."

In contrast, Matthew Dowd, former Bush adviser, questioned when it became wrong to reveal the truth about what the government is doing, especially when the government has no problem spying on citizens' communications: "If we want to restore trust in our government, maybe we can start by telling the truth, keeping fewer secrets, and respecting the privacy of average citizens a little more," he wrote.

Democracy Now includes a debate over whether there's a limit to transparency, and whether WikiLeaks crossed that line.

As Assange is charged with sex crimes in Sweden, PayPal stops the ability to donate to WikiLeaks, and Amazon moves the site off its servers, Siliconrepublic editor John Kennedy wonders "who is on trial: Assange, technology, or freedom of speech?" As he writes, "Quite simply a new era has begun, secrets can no longer be kept forever. Perhaps it is time those in positions of power learned to behave better themselves? Or better still, not have secrets."

On the BBC College of Journalism blog, executive editor Kevin Marsh writes that it is important to consider what WikiLeak's data dump does for journalism. "The diplodocudump was underwhelming - but that doesn’t mean it was a Bad Thing; no journalist should argue that revelation itself doesn’t serve the public interest...But it wasn’t and couldn’t ever be an end in itself."

The problem with WikiLeaks, Marsh goes on to say, is that it is not salient, and thus cannot replace investigative journalism: "Because of the way most investigative journalism comes about - through a whistleblower who rightly or wrongly senses some kind of moral violation - it has that magic thing we call salience. And it’s salience that leaking on an industrial scale lacks. Leaking for the sake of leaking or in the hope of overwhelming both power and journalism as we know it. Whistleblowing that lacks salience does nothing to serve the public interest - if we mean capturing the public’s attention to nurture its discourse in a way that has the potential to change something material. And the risk is this: that we persuade ourselves that Wikileaks-style transparency is a substitute for investigative journalism rather than the precursor of journalistic possibilities."

As more diplomatic cables continue to be released, The Guardian and Reuters are providing updates and highlights.

See this video for more information about WikiLeaks and journalism ethics.

Other Related Headlines:
» Today's Zaman (WikiLeaks: Espionage? Journalism? or what?)


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