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.

Tags: , , , , ,

Defending the First Amendment and promoting open government are more crucial now than ever. Join SPJ's fight for the public’s right to know — either as an SPJ Supporter or a professional, student or retired journalist.

  • JMills

    Spending any time developing definitions to distinguish WikiLeaks from journalism will not only result in something intellectually disingenuous, it will not protect the press from any potential expansion of the Espionage Act or the kinds of suppression that can go on and apparently are going on in the absence of any expansion.

    A central crisis fomented by the existence of WikiLeaks is whether there is a frontal assault on the free press, not journalists and journalism.

    I don’t think this is a time to engage in self deception. These distinctions are legally meaningless and raise questions about whether the free press in America even knows what it is anymore.

    Under any expansion of the Espionage Act, these distinctions certainly would not convince any federal prosecutor that ‘we’ aren’t Julian Assange. On the contrary, unfortunately, they would be a source of embarrassment.

    What are SPJ’s lawyer members saying about the legal implications? Are they discussing it? Is anyone curious?

    The alternative strategy for dealing with the free press implications seems to be to wait it out and sidestep, not an adequate or admirable course of action.

    Assange reportedly has made some serious blunders. His background was not in journalism, apparently.* [FN] But he is the press. As such, there is an urgent need to stop quibbling over this while attempts to silence him on so many fronts of questionable legality supposedly are taking place in the open, in our faces.

    If the reports are true, he will be lucky to live through it. His workers reportedly are enduring bone crushing harassment, including grilling for hours by government agents on the topic of WikiLeaks when they travel, at airports.

    Substantiating/confirming these reports of suppression and retaliation against WikiLeaks and its associates would be a better use of our time.

    We need to face this rather than express revulsion and invest effort to distance and distinguish ourselves from him.

    Even in little ways we express bias. We characterize too much of what he says as a “claim” instead of writing “Assange said.” There is a usual appropriate context for the word “claim.”

    Assange and his workers also suffer from an insensitivity to the fact that they are human beings, not stony monoliths.

    Consider that ordinary human beings are undergoing what, if true, is an onslaught by government on several fronts for a prolonged period of time. Grilling at airports, blocking at least one bank account, government pressure for a private business, Amazon, to kick WikiLeaks off its servers. All of these reports should get scrutiny and indepth reporting. Calls to kill Assange are coming out as well from surprising places, a columnist in Chicago, and even reportedly a member of the Canadian parliament. There are calls to declare him an enemy combatant.

    Human beings are not built to endure that kind of onslaught over any prolonged period of time without serious injury to them physically and mentally that can affect their ability to function in health, and certainly human beings can not endure that without support and in this case, without sensitive news coverage.

    So there is a human story that is not being well told. Other stories, focusing on other aspects of WikiLeaks, where the human operators of WikiLeaks are regarded as stony monumental figures by the author, even if just in his or her mind while writing, is not proceeding in the real world.

    The assertion is that these are ordinary human beings being dealt death threats in a context of government suppression and harassment, and corporate shunning. And the press quibbles and shuns. T

    I feel the legal story isn’t being told well either. On top of whether they should be enduring harassment, legal or not, reporters need to ask, has all the pressure on WikiLeaks been within legal bounds and if not, has it nevertheless been highly effective, taking WikiLeaks lawyers months to reverse?

    What would you think if those activities were aimed at your newsroom and your reporters? Would you want your peers debating whether your printing presses, repeatedly being shut down, were actually presses or not? Would you want your peers suggesting that your paper deserved it?

    I am glad this is getting discussed. I don’t wish to post a comment that tries to shut down discussion. I think we should keep discussing but we need to get real in these discussions.

    *[FN]: The conflict with Amnesty International, of this past summer is the example I have in mind of a terrible blunder. This is something Assange says he has since addressed. ( Amnesty bestowed a 2009 award on him, prior to the rift of this past summer) If Assange has not made the changes he says he has made, he deserves double condemnation for putting innocents in danger. His initial response to Amnesty, from what I read, was arrogant. He has since said he is exerting editorial control over releases and acknowledged the need to.

    If he hasn’t addressed this, do we have an imperfect martyr? One representing certain principles we must defend but also representing certain blunders we can not defend and rightly criticize? Do we really have to have such a rudimentary discussion? I feel like I am dumbing down my presentation here.

    I recall complaints and acknowledgments that the Judy Miller case was flawed, was not the case NYT would like to have to defend. It was not the Pentagon Papers.

  • Wikileaks is not one of us. They’re Walmart. We’re Victoria’s Secret. They should do this at least once a year. Most of these documents Re the stuff of our “sources said,” but with names,dates amd addresses…

  • The ongoing failure of the Society of Professional Journalists to define “journalism” contributes to the steady erosion of freedom of the press in the United States. Journalism is the art of gathering and distributing information of public importance. And the freedom to practice that art is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States.

    Instead of debating whether a specific action is journalism, the society’s goals would be better served by assuring the Freedom of the Press extends to those advancing the art in new media. Journalism in America began with such daring efforts, and its future depends on them.

    By gathering,vetting and publishing the State Department cables, Wikileaks has turned a bright light onto the inner workings of government on a range of matters of international concern, exposed corruption, advanced public debate and informed the public – all at great personal and professional risk. Moreover, it worked with traditional news partners, in advance, to assure the content of that information was released in proper context, even withholding certain information that the newspapers felt might be harmful. For a 4-year-old media organization to take such steps reflects respect for the profession and the subjects.

    To be sure, Wikileaks – like almost all media organizations – has made mistakes in the past and is likely to make others in the future. But the publication of the cables was not one of them. The New York Times did much the same thing by publishing the Pentagon Papers a generation ago. Both acts are journalism, though both were condemned by the US government and other critics – including many journalists who considered these acts too “dangerous.” Many critics of the day also condemned the “Common Sense” of Tom Payne, whose daring work still seems radical.

    Technology is giving us new ways of practicing journalism in much the same way that impressionism gave artists a new way to portray beauty. It has empowered millions to contribute to our “art” in ways we cannot yet imagine. And they have every right to do so. It would be ironic, and self-destructive, for the Society of Professional Journalists to stand in the way. SPJ would be wiser to support the rapidly expanding practice of journalism – of, by and for the people – than to hinder its progress.

  • JMills

    Thank you Tom. Well written.

    I think many journalists find themselves intellectually stranded, drawn to the narrow and easily misunderstood philosophical framework that went into crafting shield laws to exclude WikiLeaks.

    The well known danger that shield laws would create a climate like this was very real and will remain with us. I think it might be one of the factors here.

    It can not be said that Reporters Committee, RCFP, has done anything but encourage this. It is easy to interpret its carve out of WikiLeaks in a dozen ways and it hasn’t offered clarifications.

    The First Amendment forbids infringement of the press.

    The SPJ says in this blog post that it has been unable to agree on any position regarding the targeting of the press in the case of WikiLeaks.

    This seems to emanate directly from the philosophical incoherence in the profession right now. One would expect a national association like this to be able to take a position, and they can’t. They can’t agree. I hope further discussion will push them through it soon.

  • JMills

    Food for thought:

    Shield law:

    ” … in their zeal for protection, legislators and journalists alike are eager to distinguish the journalists who are worthy of protection from those who are not.”


    ‘As Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press told Time magazine, “It’s data dissemination, and that worries me…Journalists will go through a period of consultation before publishing sensitive material. WikiLeaks says it does the same thing. But traditional publishers can be held accountable. Aside from Julian Assange, no one knows who these people are”.’

    Also, re shield law legislation:

    ‘ WikiLeaks has been the target of much US Government ire, and journalists seeking a favourable piece of legislation are understandably keen to distance themselves from their unpopular new media rival. Kevin Smith of the Society of Professional Journalists said that “this is the closest we’ve come to getting something moved, and it’s unfortunate that this WikiLeaks situation’s come up”. ‘

    Worth reading the rest of the article for Charles Schumer’s position, and criticism of media coverage of run up to Iraq war. It’s an Irish publication.

  • Hamas

    Thanks for defending Helen Thomas and assisting us in annihilating Israel

  • “They call the quarter-million diplomatic cables posted online a data-dump without filters, fact-checking or context from other sources.”

    This piece appears to be a thought-dump from your brain, without filters, fact-checking, or context from other sources.

    Let’s start with the most basic fact: only about 2000 cables have been posted online!

  • Morris Blunty

    Check Jay Rosen’s twitter feed.

  • This statement says…

    “Those who say ‘no’ call WikiLeaks a source, a conduit, a whistleblower. They call the quarter-million diplomatic cables posted online a data-dump without filters, fact-checking or context from other sources.”

    The quarter million cables have not been dumped online. That’s a myth. A month after this was written, about 2,000 have been released. This error has been repeated numerous times by the press. To find it uncorrected here, a week after NPR’s high-profile mea culpa, is a bit of a shock.

    See: (Dec. 10) (Dec. 28) (Dec. 28)

  • Keith

    Yeah, um, the role of journalists is not to protect the “security of government.”

    But as for the Who’s a Journalist question, what a boring topic to debate. Ninety-nine percent of the argument centers around “real” journalists who don’t want to compete with “new media” journalists.

    It’s the “we don’t like change” crowd that permeates nearly every single debate that involves something being different.

    But the thing is, new media journalists don’t care what “real” journalists think of them. They’re plowing full-steam ahead and embracing the extremely powerful publishing tools of the 21st century.

    What’s the sound of one hand clapping?

    So if you’re still debating whether bloggers are journalists, or whether WikiLeaks are journalists, you’re engaging in a form of mental masturbation. What happens if you, or SPJ, decides that WikiLeaks isn’t journalism? Nothing. What happens if you decide bloggers aren’t journalists? Nothing.

    Some of the best journalism of the previous centuries was produced by journalists who were not always bastions of ethical fortitude as defined by SPJ.

    This is the most exciting time to be a journalist that we will ever experience in our lives, don’t waste it debating nonsense.

  • Joel

    Good lord. This blog post only adds to the growing mountain of evidence the professional journalism in the United States is a hollow husk of a once great Fourth Estate. Thanks to JMills and Tom for some worthwhile reading. As for SPJ, you’re welcome to join us in the 21st Century whenever you are ready.

  • The previous SPJ president was against any definition of who a “journalist” is. Indeed, at the time the shield law was being considered in Congress last year, he told me, “Many of us within the coalition of journalism organizations are not content with the definition. In fact, it is a difficult pill to swallow. SPJ has been fighting against a definition of a journalist for four years now and I would prefer it not included.”

    This president just wrote, “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.”

    I think what Mr. Murphey confuses the issue. The fact that we refuse to define a journalist or journalism allows for the traditional protections granted by the First Amendment to extend into the future. It would be foolish to attempt to define what journalism is, because in a time of such flux, we don’t know what journalism will be tomorrow and do not want to freeze some future iteration of a journalist out of those First Amendment protection. That is why we should avoid pigeonholing it today.

  • Keith

    I fail to see the benefit for defining who a journalist is. I’m a journalist, I don’t get any special treatment. In fact, there are times when reporting would be a lot easier if people didn’t know I was a journalist.

    But if you did define who is and is not a journalist, does that mean some people will get protection under the First Amendment and others wont? That’s idiotic.

  • This article has been updated to say “2,000 cables” instead of the original “quarter of a million cables”, without an UPDATE or CORRECTION addendum at the bottom.
    What sort of message does that send about accuracy and accountability?

  • robert green

    the continuing comedy here is that now, having been forced kicking and screaming to correct the magnitude of 100 error in the opening paragraph, the author has missed one other salient point: the correction obviates the entire argument. eviscerates it. exsanguinates it. leaves it without air except of the hot variety.

    see, you had an argument built, essentially around conflating “not vetting things” with “not being a journalist”. but your talking point was a lie created by and perpetuated by (and almost, absent people-who-you-would-not-call-journalists pointing it out, institutionalized by) journalists, no need for a qualifier. but you FINALLY made the correction and then just blithely pretended you still had a point in your opening graf. you didn’t. you don’t.

    so the sickness is the opposite of what you think it is. the problem isn’t definitional, it’s that your profession brings shame to itself every day, and your society is doing nothing to help.

  • Scott Leadingham

    Hi, Jay Rosen (and everyone else).
    FYI – I added the above correction/update at the beginning of the blog post at the request of SPJ President Hagit Limor. She has been traveling today (as have I and others on the SPJ staff), and I couldn’t update the post until this evening. Thanks for pointing out the initial numerical error, and thanks to Craig Silverman at CJR for the good online piece prompting the full correction. Normally we would add such clarification in the first place, but it apparently didn’t happen this time. I sincerely apologize for the oversight. There was no ill-intent intended. Also, to clarify your original comments on this blog not going through: that was entirely a product of the WordPress filter. There is no active comment moderation other than the spam filter for WordPress. Sometimes it picks ups legitimate comments for some strange reason, and we have to manually approve those. (I’ve done it several times after commenters e-mailed me to say their comments were filtered as spam.) Again, no harm intended, and your comments were taken out of the spam filter as soon as we noticed.

    Again, thanks, and I hope all is well in New York.
    Scott Leadingham
    Quill Editor
    SPJ Communications Director

  • Thanks for adding the correction to the post. Cheers.

  • I love your blog.. very nice colors & theme. Did you make this website yourself or did you hire someone to do it for you? Plz respond as I’m looking to construct my own blog and would like to find out where u got this from. kudos
    Wow! This blog looks exactly like my old one! It’s on a completely different topic but it has pretty much the same layout and design. Great choice of colors!


Twitter Facebook Google Plus RSS Instagram Pinterest Pinterest LinkedIn

© Society of Professional Journalists. All rights reserved. Legal

Society of Professional Journalists
Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Center, 3909 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46208
317/927-8000 | Fax: 317/920-4789 | Contact SPJ Headquarters | Employment Opportunities | Advertise with SPJ