[Updated slightly to
fix the facts around the policy more accurately reflect reality.]
Jillian York, in her rather timid defense of WikiLeaks, states that
she[*] some people ‘got off the bus’, metaphorically speaking, shortly after the release of the ‘Collateral Murder’ video. Describing her personal ambivalence about the latest leak, she draws a distinction between what she characterises as WikiLeaks’ ‘firehose’ approach and conventional journalism.
But to accept that distinction, we have to ignore what happens when we back up a little from our current context and ask: what, exactly, is journalism? I think we can accept that, essentially, it is a means (until recently, our primary means) of obtaining verifiable and ostensibly reliable information about the world around us. The fact that it has become formalised -indeed, institutionalised- is a collateral feature. It does not follow that its formalisation via a collection of ethical practices is necessary to the provision of information. Journalistic ethics, in other words, are very much defined by their context and indeed their application.
As the Judith Miller debacle showed us, unconditional protection of anonymous sources can prove detrimental to the integrity of the craft. Neither selective leaks nor ‘access’ to anonymous sources are sufficient to healthy reporting. Truth, ultimately, is the only reliable measure of the effectiveness of a particular news source. It goes without saying that truth is an increasingly adulterated alloy in popular news reporting these days. It’s not even sufficient to speak nothing but truth; one must, somehow, find a way to tell all the truth that pertains to a particular subject.
WikiLeaks, for better or for worse, represents the logical conclusion of this train of reasoning. I’m open to arguments that it is actually an over-correction, but I don’t feel I’ll be moved without reference to particular details. And that requires access to sufficient information; in short, you can only make that argument retrospectively.
You can see where I’m going with this….
I’m not arguing that complete access to all information is the only true form of journalism. I’m suggesting that making a distinction between WikiLeaks and ‘journalism’ as we understand the word does not describe the process; it describes the actors.
[*] Reading comprehension FAIL on my part. I mistakenly elided the first two letters of ‘some’, changing the meaning fundamentally. Jillian was kind enough to call this mistake to my attention.
‘Nother update: I just re-read this sentence:
Neither selective leaks nor ‘access’ to anonymous sources are sufficient to healthy reporting.
I’m tempted to be a even more provocative and to ask whether they are even necessary to healthy reporting.
As a gendakenexperiment, I wonder what the journalistic craft would look like if secrets of all kinds were tabu.
As students of the Englightenment, most of us immediately shy away from the thought of an environment in which individual privacy is nearly absent. But having lived on the edges of Vanuatu village culture for the last seven years, I can attest to the fact that there are indeed ways to accommodate oneself to a world more akin to what David Brin describes than the ideal world of a doctrinaire libertarian.
Individual privacy is not as axiomatic as many in the West tend to assume….