WikiLeaks video: responsibly provocative journalism?

wiki leaks logoSome of you may remember that during the Olympics, I supported NBC’s decision to air footage of the accident in which Georgian luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili died. The circumstance surrounding the release of the video by the organization WikiLeaks is similar.

I should say that I’ve only watched a few minutes of the shorter version, over which there has been some criticism regarding the editing.

But I did watch it. It’s graphic. But I did watch it. I didn’t really want to, but I felt I needed to in order to write this piece.

During the controversy surrounding the death of Kumaritasvilli, Alfred Hermida, a journalism professor at the University of British Columbia, was quoted in the Vancouver Sun as saying that we as viewers now have a “responsibility…to decide whether to watch this video or not.” It certainly seems that this video falls into the same category.

So the ethical question, for me, is not what interests me about the video. Nor do I wish to comment on the content of the video, except to note that anyone taking issue with the action portrayed needs to consider the broader context of the day’s actions.  I found this summary of comments on military blogs particularly thought-provoking.

What I find interesting is how the mainstream media has picked up on this story. In particular, when the New York Times did a piece on it, they reported it as though WikiLeaks was being discovered for the first time:

By releasing such a graphic video, which a media organization had tried in vain to get through traditional channels, WikiLeaks has inserted itself in the national discussion about the role of journalism in the digital age. Where judges and plaintiffs could once stop or delay publication with a court order, WikiLeaks exists in a digital sphere in which information becomes instantly available.

It’s not as though WikiLeaks has just appeared on the stage. And the New York Times noticed the site some time ago. In a February 2008 editorial, the newspaper called for the reversal of a US court order to disable the site. While the editorial referred to WikiLeaks as a “muckracking Web site,” it also pointed out that “the free speech burdens of closing down a journalistic Web site are just as serious as closing down a print publication.”

The mix of dismissive attitudes and grudging respect is interesting. A March 18 article refers to the organization as “a tiny online source of information and documents.” Yet the term “journalistic” is used when the site’s under attack.

Granted nothing causes journalists to circle the wagons more than a censorship issue. But does the professional journalism community see WikiLeaks as part of the journalism community?

I suspect they do. But they’re not saying it too loudly for a few reasons.

WikiLeaks makes no bones about its desire to advocate for key issues. For many journalists, that crosses the thin grey line of ethical responsibility that we’ve theoretically moved away from since the days of Hearst and yellow journalism.

Also, WikiLeaks makes its name by publishing the very sort of thing journalists are taught in J-school to avoid whenever possible: anonymous sources.  The Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Code makes it very clear the “public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.”  While it seems clear that WikiLeaks has more information on this video’s source, they’re obviously not telling us where it came from. This isn’t the occasional thing.  Everything they publish has to stay anonymous.

Plus we’re not talking about Woodward and Bernstein meeting “Deep Throat,” or Judith Miller refusing to give up the name of a source. WikiLeaks’ web site provides a one-way encrypted drop box that makes it clear they accept anonymous submissions. WikiLeaks can’t be compelled to give up a source because they may not even know who the source is. This is the mystical envelope anonymously slipped under the newsroom door. It may be good stuff, but journalists are trained very hard to avoid this sort of thing whenever possible.

In an op-ed published on ForeignPolicy.com, Jonathan Stray points out that journalists have mixed feelings about the organization:

…Wikileaks’ disregard for gag orders and their unabashed advocacy makes full-throated praise for the organization rare. Yet no journalist I’ve spoken to will speak ill of Wikileaks in private: Every reporter understands that Wikileaks is the thin end of the wedge. If they can’t run a dangerous story, no one can.

WikiLeaks — and other organizations like it that may come by in the future — are going to be part of the future of journalism.  And because of that, readers — users — will have to take more and more responsibility over how they use the information they provide.

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