Thursday, May 5, 2011

A leak best left unplugged?

Courtney Astolfi

Wikileaks is often considered revolutionary with regards to government transparency and journalism in the digital age. In the past year, the site has released classified documents in historically unprecedented numbers.

While the delivery mechanism and sheer amount of documents released is new, the fundamental concept of Wikileaks is as old as classified documents and journalism alike. It is not some new phenomenon; it’s an old practice repackaged and scaled up for a new journalistic era. The US government is less than happy about the site’s release of information, just as it had been with the Pentagon Papers and Watergate (whether it should be upset is a different question entirely).

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Wikileaks is the apparent gray-area it occupies in modern journalism. It is not a source, it is not a publisher. It is a hybrid between the two that still wholly relies on independent sources and publishers.

The beauty of Wikileaks is its freedom from law. By existing entirely online, the site can collect information from sources around the world, and then release that information to whichever news sources it chooses. Wikileaks is a broker of information and an online clearinghouse for classified documents.

The good news for media is that Wikileaks, by its very nature, cannot supplant or replace traditional news venues. Rather, Wikileaks and the media can enjoy a symbiotic, complementary relationship. When Wikileaks acquires information, it needs journalists’ reporting skills to sift through and find relevant information. Traditional media offers an outlet for this information and distributes to the public.

We now know what Wikileaks is capable of. We know what it can do. But what about what it should do? The site is immune to US law, but its major source Bradley Manning is currently paying the price for leaking the documents Wikileaks has made famous. And what about the potential blowback from enemies of the state getting their hands on sensitive information?

Wikileaks is no doubt blazing an important trail in the modern age, but with new territory comes new risks. As professionals, we must be mindful of if and how this new source of information can compromise our commitment to ethical journalism.

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