Effects of Wikileaks and Digital Leaking on Journalism

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In 2011, Julian Assange was awarded a Walkley, Australia’s highest award for journalism.  The award was made for “contribution to journalism”.  Using one or more examples, critically discuss both the contribution and challenges presented to journalism by digital leaking in recent years.

Hackett and Zhao (1998) claimed that from the liberal perspective, Journalism should play a vital role in upholding democracy by facilitating public discourse through the “promotion of transparency and accountability of governments, corporations and public bodies” (Dobson and Hunsinger 2016, p. 218). Schlosberg (2013) reasoned that conventional journalism remains haphazard in fulfilling this civic role and is constantly suppressed by the “structures of the contemporary nation-state in which it exists” (Dobson and Hunsinger 2016, p. 218). Julian Assange was awarded the Australian Walkley Awards in 2011 for his website WikiLeaks – ‘Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism’ (Kevin 2012, p. 35). As its editor-in-chief, Assange had successfully emboldened the global public through his courageous, determined and independent stance for freedom of speech and transparency (Kevin 2012, p. 35). The United State’s (U.S) Justice Department stated that the main difficulty is establishing Wikileaks as a media organisation due to the “unprecedented scale and nature” of its leaked documents. Julian Assange affirmed that he had started WikiLeaks for journalists who were tired of censoring themselves – who had primary source material in their possession but couldn’t publish due to legal or space constraints (Rosner 2011, p. 1).  Rosner (2011, p. 1) claimed, “the current unique technological era has permitted proponents of transparent-democracy to reveal government secrets without compromising their own security”. The following essay will use the example of the “Collateral Murder” footage to critically analyse the opportunities and challenges presented towards journalism after digital leaking rose to global prominence.

WikiLeaks claimed to have constructed a “new model of journalism that openly involves sharing instead of competing against traditional media outlets” (WikiLeaks 2010). Launched in 2007 by founder Julian Assange, WikiLeaks was designated as an online whistleblowing platform (Fuchs 2011, p. 49). Users are enabled to upload documents that will bring misconduct, government and corporate crimes and transparency visible to the general public while exposing “state-corporate secrecy”. Peter Bart (2015, p. 24) claimed that WikiLeaks mirrors Uber’s[1] model and enabled “the uberization  of investigative journalism”. In the Uber world, “no one explicitly works for or are beholden to anyone” (Bart 2015, p. 24). Rather, WikiLeaks relies on sophisticated technological software to facilitate and merge genuine human interaction while protecting the identity of sources and ensuring the digitally leaked materials linger online (Lynch 2017, p. 315). Journalism scholar Jay Rosen pronounced WikiLeaks as “the world’s first stateless news organisation” when the official WikiLeaks Twitter feed explicitly stated its location as “everywhere” (Meikle 2012, p. 54).

WikiLeaks rose to worldwide prominence after releasing the “Collateral Murder” video on 5th April 2010 (Rosner 2011, p. 1). The audio-visual piece showed an American Apache helicopter attack from 2007 that ultimately resulted in the deaths of two Reuters journalists, and over a dozen of civilians in a Baghdad street (Meikle 2012, p. 53; Rosner 2011, p.1). The footage brought WikiLeaks into the public consciousness (Dobson and Hunsinger 2016, p. 218).

Image 1.0: A snippet of the footage from a helicopter perspective and an interpretation of the video through editing with added subtitles, added captions and text cards, which strongly direct the viewer (Meikle 2012, p. 54). Retrieved from: https://www.rt.com/news/396074-collateral-murder-video-anniversary/

“Collateral Murder” was recorded through a weapon’s targeting cross hairs of several men strolling on the streets below (Meikle 2012, p. 53). The audio recording revealed that the helicopter crew believed the men were armed with weapons. When one of the men holding a large black object crouched behind a building, the crew hastily decides it as a weapon and bombards everyone on the ground. When a black van pulls up and tries to help, the helicopter once again opens fire and shoots everyone in sight (Meikle 2012, p. 53). There were two children (not visible in the video) that were critically injured in the van. News sources such as BBC, The New York Times, and The Guardian picked up the video for global coverage.

Contrary to traditional media, WikiLeaks presented its ability “to undermine power relations between governments, the media and the public by facilitating the exchange of potentially sensitive and previously censored materials” (Dobson and Hunsinger 2016, p. 224). Hardy (2010) reasoned that traditional media are economically and politically suppressed by governments and corporations, which hinders their effectiveness at publicly holding these institutional bodies accountable for their misconducts (Dobson and Hunsinger 2016, p. 225). Meikle (2012, p. 54) explained that collaborating with prominent news establishments in the publication of “Collateral Murder” would enable WikiLeaks “to draw on the agenda-setting power, established viewers, and editorial and distribution resources of traditional news organisations”. Therefore, propelling the classified materials to massive public attention that spreads far beyond the WikiLeaks site. Moreover, Rosen (2011) explained that WikiLeaks’ unprecedented position as a “stateless news agency” had successfully evaded state censorship. Its collaboration with traditional media partners further reiterated WikiLeaks “as an incidence of “networked” journalism” (Lynch 2013, p. 317).

In its avowed battle for freedom of expression and speech, WikiLeaks is described as “a purveyor of Internet journalism”, indicating the emergence of a progressive “age of transparency” (Wahl-Jorgenson 2014, p. 2582). Taking account that WikiLeaks’ functions as both a source and distributor of materials, the emergence of the networked fourth estate can be seen to a certain extent, as a contribution to old media institutions (Benkler 2013). Benkler (2013, p. 13-14) outlined that the networked fourth estate encompasses the following components: “traditional mass media, mass media aggregation sites, professional-journalism-focused non-profits, non-profit organisations with peer production, a party press culture, and individuals undertaking a significantly prominent role in the media ecosystem” (Benkler 2013, p. 13-14). Dunn (2013) reasoned that the progressive course of journalism as a networked character “does not assume the evolution of media toward a new paradigm” (Brevini 2017, p. 4). Rather, WikiLeaks’ access to unfiltered, classified and “fresh and explosive” information presents old journalism mediums with a lucrative resource, as it is capable of lessening the cost of production and reproduction. For example, the precedent case of “networked journalism”, Panama Papers [2] leak had brought 400 journalists from different countries together for global coverage (Brevini 2017, p. 5). This presented that raw information obtained by “networked journalism”, such as WikiLeaks appeals to the “credible, critical lens of traditional investigative journalism” and thus, WikiLeaks and traditional media “is postulated to result in a symbiotic relationship of mutual dependence” (Dunn 2013, cited in Brevini 2017, p. 4).

Dobson and Hunsinger (2016, p. 226) stated that WikiLeaks’ disruptive counter power transpires indirectly from its leaks. Rather, the precise, substantial impact is derived from its capability to inform and potentially mobilize the public via digital media utilisation. Without WikiLeaks’ challenging the official narrative, the government could continuously provide a justification of the events that would have remained unchallenged[3]. Mass media, such as Reuters were denied access through traditional approaches and failed to make public the truthful account of the 12th July 2007 events in Baghdad (Dobson and Hunsinger 2016, p. 226). The traditional role of operating as a watchdog was undermined by the US military’s attempt to manipulate and mislead the narrative to communities. Nonetheless, WikiLeaks was able to present an alternative narrative – “the fact that two Reuters staff were victims served as a reminder to audiences about the function of news reporting in war”: there are two perspectives of stories in any armed conflict, the former being one’s own country and the latter from the opponent’s viewpoint (Fuchs 2011; Christensen 2014, p. 2597). Furthermore, WikiLeaks operated as a transnational media that exist within a nation-state but outside its clutches, simultaneous with an overarching distribution network that disseminates information while constructing networks of freedom (Dobson and Hunsinger 2016, p. 218, 225). By releasing ‘Collateral Murder’, WikiLeaks upheld the transparency of the events surrounding the incident. WikiLeaks had uncovered political economy agenda by exposing “current day secret realities of warfare” while operating free from oppressive forces and “indebted neither to states nor markets” (Fuchs 2011, p. 59; Dobson and Hunsinger 2016, p. 228).

Bart (2015, p. 24) explained that WikiLeaks introduced a novel method of reporting, an “uberization of journalism” based upon public accessibility and interpretability of information, at times even before professional journalists have access to it. Thus, giving a new set of actors their power to interpret and disseminate news first-hand, at times even before news releases (Bart 2015, p. 24). The old journalistic role that is underwritten by corporations and governments are now tranquilized by the new form of news where “masses of the individual public now work towards constructing the news, deciphering it and publicizing it, while developing dominant narratives” (Dobson and Hunsinger 2016, p. 230). Through the digital leaking of ‘Collateral Murder’, WikiLeaks blew the whistle on journalism’s democratic regression; especially in the U.S. “The preposterousness of unilateral power, the disregard for human life, an organised opposition to transparency, and the repression of democracy through the elimination of citizen participation and knowledge” of the U.S government were publicly disclosed (Christensen 2014, p. 2597). Christensen (2014, p. 2597) further maintained that it took “an act of journalism” to bring tragedies such as ‘Collateral Murder’ to light. Journalistic norms such as reporting truthfulness, accuracy, upholding transparency and the notion of democracy are upheld and thus, exhibiting digital leaking as a contribution to journalism (Christensen 2014, p. 2597).  

Nevertheless, scholars have continued to argue the ways in which WikiLeaks challenges journalism. As Bantz (1997, p. 133) asserted, the news is not the mere exhibition of raw information, but rather, an industrial process where stories are articulated by crafting raw evidence into “non-fiction drama”, giving unfiltered information its shape, frame, and structure. Meikle (2012, p. 54) reasoned that for the most part, WikiLeaks does not generate news. Instead, WikiLeaks operates as a source of raw material for traditional news enterprises while ensuring that the unfiltered information is accessible to the public via its site (Meikle 2012, p. 54). Robert Stam once affirmed that news guarantees “tonight’s top stories, not tonight’s top facts” (Stam 2000, p. 367). Moreover, the interpretations of the ‘Collateral Murder’ video via editing (Image 1.0 above, p. 4) projected it as an activist documentary rather than a news report (Meikle 2012, p. 54).

Coddington (2012, p. 383) further reasoned that WikiLeaks violates every component of professional journalistic paradigms, primarily by defying institutional characterization with its geological and organisational fluidity. Predominantly, WikiLeaks engagements with reporting routines are limited-to-none, basically having no affiliation with the official sources. This is contrary to conventional journalistic practice, as Schudson (1989) describes, “the story of journalism on a daily basis rests upon the story of the interaction between professional journalists and official sources” (Coddington 2012, p. 381). This symbiotic relationship ensures a reciprocal dependence between parties, as respective sides offer exclusive access to information that is valued by the other – reporters require continual “newsworthy” materials while sources require publicity and influence (Coddington 2012, p. 381). WikiLeaks and Assange have also conveyed unambiguous political goals through the ‘Collateral Murder’ leaks, including government transparency and the revelation of misconduct by the U.S government and huge corporations, therefore contradicting the journalism norm of objectivity (Cohen and Stelter 2010). Keller, Times columnist, referred Assange as “a man who is vested in his own agenda” and who was “openly contemptuous of the U.S government”, later also mentioning the ‘Collateral Murder’ footage as “antiwar propaganda” (Coddington 2012, p. 388). Christensen (2014, p. 2594) echoed the sentiment, stating that the very title of the footage was slated as a digression from facts, and serving as a de facto antiwar editorial instead. Although Times writer, Carr, recognised WikiLeaks’ engagement towards journalistic practices (partnering up with mainstream media outlets as a source), he remains insistent that “it was merely moving toward the journalistic paradigm specifically to tone down its advocacy” (Carr 2010).

WikiLeaks’ most problematic challenge towards journalism comes from the ethical concerns from its online “crowd sourcing” – making an open call on the Internet for people to help unravel a problem (Ottosen 2012, p. 840; Tiffen 2011, p. 2). Unfortunately, due to the need for confidentiality and security to safeguard these sources and substantiate documents, WikiLeaks eradicated the chances to function as an “open, collaborative online endeavour such as the Wikipedia model” (Tiffen 2011, p. 2). Fowler (2011) mentioned “the WikiLeaks system keeps the background of its sources anonymous even to Assange. The question on the document’s legitimacy remains unanswered” (Tiffen 2011, p. 2). Therefore, when readers are unable to discover the underlying motives for the leak of all these material, the ethicality of WikiLeaks’ digital leaks will come into question (Ottosen 2012, p. 840). Furthermore, even after news outlets gain access to these leaks, they continue to be unable to provide a concrete explanation as to why the stories were leaked and ultimately, what was not leaked. Haugsgjerd (2011) stated that prominent news outlets including The New York Times and The Guardian had chosen to publish WikiLeaks’ materials before, insisting that the information provided has been vetted and are legitimate (Ottosen 2012, p. 840). However, the ethical dilemma remains and still poses as highly problematic. 

This essay has discussed digital leaking by analysing WikiLeaks ‘Collateral Murder’ footage’s impacts on journalism. Despite persistently deemed as controversial, Julian Assange’s platform has offered scholars with an effective framework to examine central issues. These include the traditional journalistic role of news dissemination in the era of networked journalism, the Internet’s potential to facilitate activism and the challenges posed upon the journalism realm with the emergence of online media. As Meikle (2012, 58) summarised, the release of ‘Collateral Murder’ had propelled WikiLeaks to the political stage, explicitly presenting the evolution of the media from “the broadcast paradigm of the twentieth century into a multifaceted, twenty-first century convergent media ecosystem” – new actors create news by circulating never-before-seen database-driven material. Unlike traditional journalism outlets that are economically and politically underwritten by governmental and corporate institutions, WikiLeaks’ digital operations enable “masses of the individual public” to use their own interpretability to form dominant narratives to be disseminated as news (Dobson and Hunsinger 2016, p. 230). Therefore, in theory, upholding journalistic norms such as transparency, truthfulness, accuracy, and democracy (Christensen 2014, p. 2597). On the other hand, scholars also contended that WikiLeaks challenges the professional journalism elements due to its operation of exposing raw information, which was argued as “not journalism” (Tiffen 2011; Ottosen 2012; Coddington 2012). From this perspective, WikiLeaks undermines journalism ethical considerations, opposes the journalistic practice of having an institutional characterization, but also contradicts journalistic objectivity by slanting the ‘Collateral Murder’ release for advocacy purposes. Despite so, news outlets collaboration with WikiLeaks continues to straddle the lines between conventional journalistic functions and new approaches. As Coddington (2012) stated, only time will tell if the traditional journalistic will evolve and welcome new models of journalism with an open mind, or it will remain unbending towards a wide range of innovative journalistic actors.

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[1] A ride-sharing business model that function through the ‘Uber’ smartphone application that provides on-demand ride services. (Dobson and Hunsinger 2016, p. 218).

[2] Documents containing classified confidential financial information on affluent individuals and public officials. Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm was found to use their business for illegal purposes, including tax evasion, neglecting international sanctions and fraud (The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists 2016).

[3] ‘Official’ reports by the US government remained inconsistent and contradictory of one another.  WikiLeaks’ leak of the “Collateral Murder” footage made it possible to confront with official accounts and allow for transparency. It exposed the discrepancies through the casual viewing of the video. The US military is seen to be willing and capable of manipulating the truth to construct a narrative they believe will be suitable to portray to the public (Dobson and Hunsinger 2016, p. 226).

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