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Wikileaked. Now What?

Aug 6, 2010

Friday, August 6, 2010

By Vanessa Horwell

A little more than a year ago, I kicked off this column with an article called “Journalism Rocks.” Now, after the Wikileaks fiasco, that headline could read “Journalism Rocked.”

Wikileaks’ “sharing” of some 90,000+ classified documents relating to the war in Afghanistan has raised many sensitive issues, politically and from a media perspective. The most obvious of these is whether it is ethically correct to publish classified materials — particularly if they could compromise national security. This is a polarizing question and one that divides journalistic opinion as to the very existence of sites like Wikileaks, which strives to remove all barriers to information (even the barrier of military classification).

Although the materials released by Wikileaks don’t appear to have compromised national security — yet — they have cast a bigger shroud over the continued conduct of the war in Afghanistan, and likely further eroded public support for a desperately unpopular conflict. They have also highlighted the nature of media today and the role sites like Wikileaks play within it; the output of traditional media outlets and the so-called unvarnished, undigested, and importantly, un-vetted material put forward by new media and the blogosphere.

I see this contrast in terms of slant and opinion versus independently verifiable news, with accuracy and neutrality as valuation (and valuable) metrics. In this respect, information “dumps” like Wikileaks avoid the objection of being opinion masked as news and score high on neutrality, unlike the left-right media bias that has been swelling since the before the last election.

But as this leak has demonstrated, ensuring accuracy is a huge concern for news organizations everywhere. Wikileaks may twinkle with the glorification of democratized journalism, but it suffers from a profound lack of editorial superstructure that helps ensure accuracy and relevance.

Which is precisely what we have come to, and should, expect from our news sources.

I am sure that proponents of Wikileaks will argue that its purpose is not to editorialize, but to present information in its rawest possible form. The rules and structures that another media outlet, say The Washington Post, might be compelled to adhere to may hinder the free flow of data and documents, and therefore inherently limit the scope of what the average viewer or reader encounters. Wikileaks, one could argue, provides an ideal environment for the consumption of information; it supposedly offers the truth — innocent of censorship, unspoiled by editorial.

Or does it?

News Without Context

By presenting documents and data without context, Wikileaks seriously risks creating misunderstanding and misinterpretations among its readership. Traditional news outlets take great pains to examine and contextualize sources and quotes (even as unscrupulous ones do this to reinforce their slants or positions). Without this process, completely authentic information can be dangerously misunderstood. Take the Afghan documents: what percentage of the public can accurately discern between a daily report generated by a field unit under fire and an official military analysis created days or weeks later? I know I can’t.

The average reader expects — and needs — some context, some analysis, and some interpretation, and by design they are not getting it from a site like Wikileaks.

Shadow Media

The reason Wikileaks doesn’t need to provide context and analysis — it could argue — contributes to the second shortcoming of the free information ideal, and circles around the ethical discussion that has highlighted the Afghan papers release.

Wikileaks is not new media. It is shadow media.

It operates independent of the journalistic and ethical standards that other media outlets must abide by. By simply existing as a repository of documents and raw data, Wikileaks has no formal obligation to truth beyond ascertaining the legitimacy of source material. The fact that a document is real does not mean that the information contained therein is correct.

As such a document bank and not a news source, Wikileaks could act as a necessary hedge to the corporate and governmental interests that are sometimes accused of influencing traditional media. But doesn’t this go against the mission of such a site — providing unbiased, unfettered information?

The real reason for Wikileaks sharing this classified information with the world this week might never be known, but one thing is for certain. The fact that it gained so much attention is an indication that shadow media is encroaching on traditional media.
And while this might not be as troubling as, say, Andrew Brietbart being touted as the next great evolutionary force in journalism, it is a rocking change for journalism nonetheless, and makes the digestion of information a lot more questionable and harder for the average news consumer.

Putting an “end to illegitimate governance” as Wikileaks likes to think of its actions, it does not.

Vanessa Horwell is Chief Visibility Officer at ThinkInk. She works with companies in the U.S., UK and Europe to improve their visibility through strategic public relations and new media channels. Reach her at vanessa@thinkinkpr.com 

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