The media and its ethical leak

“It’s the price to pay in this era of the new media,” WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told journalists at The New York Times. They were asking him to delete the names of Afghan people who appeared on the files of the Afghanistan war. The database was huge and the deletion of each and every single name appeared to be an impossible task. But this task would have saved the life of the informants who had no clue their names had suddenly gone public on an international scale. They were in serious danger, had no clue, and were left without a way to protect themselves from repercussions from the people they had betrayed.

Eric Schmitt had been working for The New York Times for almost 30 years. In his extensive career, he had covered issues related to terrorism, national security and international conflict. Prior to their release on The New York Times, Schmitt was sent to London to take a look at the confidential Afghanistan documents. After negotiations with Julian Assange and the American government, the paper published the documents. Although they contained classified information, Schmitt argues that the paper maintained an ethical stand on the matter.

“We went to great lengths to make sure we stood by the same standards that we’ve had since I’ve been in journalism,” he says. “It’s just on a much bigger scale. If somebody comes to you with a classified document that is a great story, you have to apply the same ethical principles as before and ask yourself: is there anything in here that can hurt people, that can disclose troop movements, that can jeopardize operations? There are a lot of things that you have to think about.”

The journalists also did their best to convince Assange to delete the names in the files in order to save lives. The newspapers that first published the documents certainly did so, and these were The New York Times (US), The Guardian (UK), Der Spiegel (Germany), El Pais (Spain) and Le Monde (France).

Leaks and leaks
In the months that passed from the publication of the last important batch of documents provided by WikiLeaks and the diplomatic cables, many copycat organizations have appeared all over the world. Some of them claim to have learned from the mistakes of WikiLeaks and of Assange, and to have taken measures to ensure that nobody’s life and freedom were jeopardized by leaked documents.  OpenLeaks, for example, says it aims to provide an anonymous dropbox where whistleblowers can just drop the information they know, and let professional journalists verify it.

Should journalists then wait in the newsroom hoping for a great whistleblower tip to eventually pursue? Schmitt doesn’t think so. “You still have to dig and get information and do a lot of leg work to get to the bottom of some stories,” he says. “What the WikiLeaks case shows is the broader use of computer-assisted reporting to do a broader range of investigative journalism that you couldn’t do before just because the sheer volume of documents.”

He adds, “This applies not just to WikiLeaks, but it also healthcare records, to defense contracts, to everything where you just get gobs and gobs of data that you just couldn’t crunch before.” Now, people have the ability to go through these databases, look for trends and package the information in a way that makes it manageable to analyze it using the traditional tools.

Closer relationship between the media and the government, an unexpected outcome of the leaks
If after the Watergate scandal, relationships between the press and the American government were rather chilly, this time around, the WikiLeaks issue has brought them closer together. Schmitt explains that the unexpected outcome was created by the responsibility with which the media dealt with the disclosed classified documents. “The Obama administration clearly didn’t like what was happening,” Schmitt says. “But I think they came away impressed with the ways The Times in particular handled the sensitive issue of the names mentioned in the documents, the sensitive programs, and so on. We went methodically over the files with them every night for almost two weeks. They appreciated that.”

Posted in | 20.06.2011

By: Carmen Paun

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