The consensus on WikiLeaks: there is no consensus. But consider the ethics

Correction and update [1/7/2011]: The original post noted that there had been “… 250,000 diplomatic cables posted online …” This number came from an Associated Press report. In reality, the number of cables actually posted at the time was closer to 2,000. The number was changed in this post when the author and SPJ became aware of the error. However, a full explanation or clarification regarding the correction was not added, as noted by Craig Silverman of the Columbia Journalism Review. This clarification is included now, and SPJ thanks Jay Rosen and CJR for pointing out the incorrect number and omission.

If you’re looking for consensus on WikiLeaks, don’t ask a group of journalists. Several of our committees have been batting around the ramifications all week, and we can’t even agree on the most basic question: Is WikiLeaks journalism?

Those who say “no” call WikiLeaks a source, a conduit, a whistleblower. They call the 2,000 diplomatic cables posted online a data-dump without filters, fact-checking or context from other sources. They say there’s no original reporting, hence the need for established media partners to get out the word.

Others point to WikiLeaks’ own website detailing its process “to get the unvarnished truth out to the public.” The site claims its own employees verify material “of significance to society” and claims to have developed a “harm minimisation (sic) procedure” to remove or delay identifying details “to protect life and limb of innocent people.”

Seeking truth and minimizing harm echo the first two tenets of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. Only Julian Assange and company know if WikiLeaks followed these stated procedures or recklessly exercised little or no judgment before unleashing the storm.

To me, whether what we just witnessed defines “journalism” shouldn’t be the question perplexing this Society — or this society.

First and foremost, I don’t believe we should be in the business of defining journalism any more than we want to define who is a journalist. These are epic times in the redefinition of information-gathering and sharing. To exclude any format will define us as the fools of tomorrow.

Further, the question of whether WikiLeaks is journalism matters not a whit to the general public. They don’t care what we call it, from aggregator to middleman to source to blogger to journalist. The world audience just wants information.

And let’s be honest here. There’s no questioning the journalistic value of this information. We now know that China might agree to a reunified Korea, that more Middle East countries are concerned about Iranian nukes than have admitted publicly, that the Obama administration tried some heavy-handed incentives to get other countries to take Guantanamo detainees.

Nothing I’ve read rises to the level of endangering lives. Treason? Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates minimizes the potential harm, saying the disclosures may be embarrassing but of “modest” consequence to U.S. foreign policy.

In my book, the government should bypass the messenger and look within its own glass house. If there was treason, it lies within. It starts with a system that allows an Army private to access classified information.

No, the real question all of us should be asking has nothing to do with the content of the information, but rather the process of gathering it. It’s not about format or who does the publishing. It’s about the decision-making that leads to publication.

That’s what defines professional journalism. It’s not the paycheck. It’s not the type of employer. It’s the tool-gathering skill set. It’s the knowledge to verify and test for accuracy, to provide context via other sources and to provide opportunity for the subjects to respond. It’s about acting responsibly, recognizing the potential harm in the information and vetting it to ensure safety of person and security of government.

That’s the question we should all be discussing, the same question every person and outlet disseminating information should consider. I don’t care who you are or what you call yourself, if you’re not applying these principles, you’re not a journalist. That’s where I feel comfortable defining the word.

In recent months, some have urged SPJ to update our ethics code, and we’re looking into that. But cases like WikiLeaks demonstrate how the code as it exists covers the most controversial of journalistic questions.

So we’re left with what else the code says. These are the parts some might quibble with Assange and WikiLeaks: Be accountable. (Harder to do while you’re in hiding.) Question motives, not only of the alleged Army source but of WikiLeaks itself. As the code says: “Pursuit of truth is not a license for arrogance.”

WikiLeaks provides an opportunity to reaffirm what SPJ believes. First and foremost, we’re a First Amendment organization. We believe in the right to publish truthful information in the public interest. We’re about open government. But we also believe in considerations of harm. As citizens, it’s in our interest that national security stands. Unfortunately, governments sometimes use secrecy to hide what should shine in the light of day. It is these abuses we expose in our role as watchdogs. That is why we’ve gone to bat for leakers and whistleblowers in the past, after we’ve vetted and confirmed their information, of course.

Some outside SPJ have called on us to draw a moral line in the sand between whistleblower and aide to the enemy. We do so every day where lives depend on the line. That’s where responsible journalists consider and make the tough decisions whether and what to publish. Issues that simply “embarrass” the government don’t cross the line.

Others inside SPJ have called on us to distinguish professional journalism from what WikiLeaks just did. The answer lies in what standards the site used. Had PFC Bradley Manning allegedly leaked the information to mainstream media, would we be asking the same question? Or would we be lauding the scoop? Glass houses, everyone.

Perhaps WikiLeaks sought out professional partners because Assange of all people realizes the truth of his site’s limitation: a lack of credibility whether real or imagined. That’s something from which you can’t hide. You earn it over time. You earn it doing the hard work, applying the principles of good, ethical journalism the world can believe.

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