Journalism or not? Ethical or unethical? WikiLeaks, the infamous internet-based organization that releases sensitive and often-classified material that is leaked to it, is perhaps one of the most controversial organizations in the world today.
But despite the controversy surrounding WikiLeaks, it appears that at least one major newspaper is envious enough of what it’s doing to start its own online service designed to allow ‘whistleblowers‘ to share their wares.
That newspaper is the Wall Street Journal, which released SafeHouse to the world yesterday. According to the Journal’s managing editor, Robert Thomson, “The Wall Street Journal is the world’s most trusted source of news, and SafeHouse will enable the collection of information and documents that could be used in the generation of trustworthy news stories“.
Already, traditional news organizations like the Wall Street Journal rely on information leaked to their journalists by trusted insiders. But the anonymous (or more accurately semi-anonymous) platform provided by WikiLeaks has completely changed the dynamic for whistleblowing, and in launching SafeHouse, the Wall Street Journal is clearly attempting to keep up. But should it?
SafeHouse doesn’t come without risk. Already, it’s being criticized, particularly by those involved with WikiLeaks. Much of the criticism is over the security and anonymity SafeHouse provides. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal admits that it “can’t offer absolute security or anonymity“, and perhaps even more interestingly, the newspaper says it will comply with all “applicable laws“.
Given that some government officials believe WikiLeaks has violated the law in releasing certain documents, this raises questions about just how comfortable would-be whistleblowers can feel in submitting materials to SafeHouse, and just which documents submitted will actually make their way into Journal articles.
But logistical and legal issues aside, an even bigger question has to be asked: are the Wall Street Journal and the other newspapers considering WikiLeaks clones of their own getting lazy?
Newspapers have always relied on anonymous sources and insider leaks, but such sources and leaks have always been developed through relationship building and shoes-on-the-ground journalistic effort.
If opening up WikiLeaks-like services is part of an attempt to do away with some of the journalistic effort in pursuit of the most salacious documents, newspapers might want to think twice about the direction they’re headed.