For journalists, the present day may seem like both the best of times and the worst of times.
Traditional news organizations, disrupted by the internet, are
struggling, making it harder to turn journalism into profit.
But at the
same time, change brought about by the internet is creating exciting new
opportunities for journalism.
One of the most promising opportunities come from the realm of citizen journalism. From engaged citizens reporting local news, to self-fashioned investigative journalists, the businesses built around journalism may be shrinking, but the number of ‘journalists‘ is arguably increasing.
When it comes to citizen journalism, one of the most interesting initiatives is WikiLeaks. Started by Australian activist Julian Assange, WikiLeaks is dedicated to obtaining and publishing leaks of confidential and classified information that may be of interest to the public.
In the past several years, WikiLeaks’ profile has grown tremendously, and so too has the amount of controversy it creates. The latest controversy that it’s embroiled in, however, may be the most interesting, as it pits WikiLeaks against a traditional news organization, The Guardian.
At issue: Wikileaks signed an agreement with The Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger. In it, Rusbridger acknowledges that the material WikiLeaks is providing to The Guardian “is for review only, and is not to be published without the express consent of Julian Assange or his authorised representative“.
He also agrees that “the material will be held in conditions of strict confidence within the Guardian and will not be shown to any third party“.
Now, Assange claims that The Guardian violated this agreement when “Guardian investigations editor, David Leigh, recklessly, and without gaining our approval, knowingly disclosed… decryption passwords in a book published by the Guardian“.
According to WikiLeaks, “Revolutions and reforms are in danger of being lost as the unpublished cables spread to intelligence contractors and governments before the public“.
Notwithstanding the irony that a man releasing classified material which somebody ostensibly broke the law in leaking would seek to control by legal agreement the release of that information, the spirit of this agreement, which Rusbridger certainly understood, on the surface gave Assange a form of editorial control over The Guardian.
This is because the newspaper simply couldn’t publish a hot story using the information gleaned from WikiLeaks without the approval of a man who, by his own admission, has been releasing classified government information as part of a “carefully laid out plan to stimulate profound changes”.
While Assange may be deluded for believing that he’s responsible for the Arab Spring, the fact that respected news organizations like The Guardian would, by agreement, become subservient to a man who thinks he’s using the news media as a tool for sparking revolutions is somewhat disturbing, particularly given that Assange’s gloating comes after the devastation wrought by those revolutions is apparent.
Obviously, the business of news is tough, and in some respects, the internet has only made it tougher. Traditional news organizations have faced many challenges because of digital change, and print news organizations specifically have faced some of the greatest challenges.
So it’s very hard for organizations like The Guardian to sit back and watch as groups like WikiLeaks break the juiciest stories using classified information that mainstream news organizations would probably never otherwise obtain.
But, just as a desire for a hot story doesn’t mean that it’s morally acceptable to hack somebody’s phone, there’s a strong argument to be made that The Guardian and others shouldn’t be making deals with individuals like Julian Assange.
The future of journalism may not be clear, but one thing is: publishing stories under the direction of a single person with an agenda isn’t journalism.