Reporters need a new ethical framework in order to deploy technologies that can expose business and government misconduct, without creating unintended victims. This was the lesson from a Columbia Journalism School debate last week on "Life after WikiLeaks: Who won the information war?"
The event, a collaboration with the British organization Index on Censorship, brought together a wide spectrum of commentators to hash out the benefits and drawbacks of Julian Assange's decision to share more than 200,000 classified State Department cables with the media.
Sparks flew in a respectful blame game between Mark Stephens, the free expression attorney who represents Julian Assange, and P. J. Crowley, the U.S. Department of State spokesperson who was recently dismissed for criticizing the treatment of accused leaker Bradley Manning.
Crowley asserted that the true casualties of the WikiLeaks release were the informants who were named in the State Department documents—many of them journalists and activists of the stripe Assange seeks to empower. Most headlines about the issue have focused on Afghan informants, but both Crowley and Stephens acknowledged that the names of informants living under a variety of authoritarian regimes appeared in the documents released to news outlets.
Another panelist, Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatav, confirmed that some of the writers identified in the documents have lost access to key sources because those sources now fear exposure in State Department communications. He shared the suspicion that other writers have been imprisoned as a result of their cooperation with the State Department.
The State Department is far from blameless here. Officials had the opportunity to redact the documents before they were published. Moreover, the documents were accessible to the 3 million federal employees with a security clearance—a fairly loose standard for protecting the names of confidential informants in authoritarian countries.
Great responsibility now falls to Assange and the news media to delineate ethical obligations going forward. WikiLeaks walks a blurry line as an intermediary between whistleblowers and reporters. In this case, such diffusion may have hampered the rigorous exercise of news judgment. WikiLeaks also has an organizational problem: Assange and his skeleton crew are not equipped to handle the intricacies of 200,000 diplomatic documents or the ripple effects of their release.
Finally, the media bears responsibility to evolve. Until the New York Times and other outlets construct high-security servers, the sensitive documents of investigative journalism are vulnerable to intrusion by outside sources.
In journalism school, budding reporters are indoctrinated with standards for the ethical treatment of whistleblowers who directly provide documents and interviews. With the mythical days of Deep Throat fading in the rear-view mirror, the industry must catch up with the reality of contemporary information transfer without losing respect for confidentiality.
PHOTO CREDIT: a.powers-fudyma (CC).