WikiLeaks Intelligence Flood Leads to Ethical Questions for Journalists
WikiLeaks leapt onto the national landscape this weekend in dramatic fashion. While most Americans were watching football, attending church, or travelling WikiLeaks began releasing over 250,000 ‘cables’ or reports about U.S. foreign affairs that had been retrieved from U.S. government computers. WikiLeaks describes itself as a “not-for-profit media organization” that is “fearless in our efforts to get the unvarnished truth out to the public.” The website uses a secure, anonymous drop box that allows sources to send raw information to the website, which is then published with articles. WikiLeaks intends to display all the raw information so that the public can see it and make judgments for themselves.
On it’s ‘About Us’ page, WikiLeaks also says “Publishing improves transparency, and transparency creates a better society for all people. Better scrutiny leads to reduced corruption and stronger democracies in all society’s institutions, including government, corporations, and other organizations.” The goal of WikiLeaks is simple and understandable—they want the truth and nothing but the truth. However, their emergence has sparked a new debate on ethics.
A website as controversial as this one is naturally going to raise questions about journalistic ethics. One of the most important things to remember about journalistic ethics, and any ethics professor will tell you this, is that the only concrete code of ethics involves telling an accurate story. Ethics involving how to publish the information, how to gather the information, and what information to publish is up to the journalist, the editor or producer, and the organization. Ethics differ for journalists all across the country.
In this particular instance, WikiLeaks is being called into question for its use of anonymous sources. The website claims not to seek anonymous sources, but it accepts information from them. Regardless of the validity of that claim, journalists, newsrooms, and media outlets all across the country still use anonymous sources when they absolutely have to. There have been instances where newsrooms have tried to ban them totally and have been burned by it. The Washington Post was burned on major stories during a two day span several decades ago when they tried to ban anonymous sources. The ban was lifted after two days of getting beaten on major stories. People may not like it, and in some cases it may harm credibility, but anonymous sources are still used and in many cases used effectively. It is no less credible for WikiLeaks to use anonymous sources, and in this case more credible because of the raw material that the anonymous sources are providing.
Journalists should take full advantage of this new tool. Raw information like this is hard to come by. While many of these reports and cables will need to still be thoroughly combed for mistakes and errors, these are government documents and in their raw form are at their most credible. A journalist does a disservice to the audience, the media outlet, and themselves by not using this extremely valuable asset.