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When do 92,000 documents trump an off-the-record dinner? A few more thoughts about Wikileaks

Sometimes you can spend an entire morning racing the clock to put together the perfect blog post, and once you’re done, find a quote or two that would have let you sum up the entire thing in a lot less time. Such is the case with this great exchange between veteran reporter Tom Ricks (now blogging at Foreign Policy magazine) and David Corn at Mother Jones. Ricks pretty much trashed the “War Logs“/Wikileaks story that has been the buzz of the journalism world for the past few days, and dropped this gem:

A huge leak of U.S. reports and this is all they get? I know of more stuff leaked at one good dinner on background.

David Corn responded with a thoughtful post that is worth reading in full. The essence of it, however, is this:

These documents — snapshots from a far-away war — show the ground truth of Afghanistan. This is not what Americans receive from US officials. And with much establishment media unable (or unwilling) to apply resources to comprehensive coverage of the war, the public doesn’t see many snapshots like these. Any information that illuminates the realities of Afghanistan is valuable.

This captures the essence of the question I was trying to get at in the fifth point of yesterday’s post (“journalism in the era of big data”). I noted the similarities between “War Logs” and last week’s big bombshell, “Top Secret America.” The essence of the similarity, I said, was that they were based on reams of data, which, in sum, might not tell us anything shockingly new but that brought home, in Ryan Sholin’s excellent phrase, “the weight of failure.” And this gets me excited because I think it represents something new in journalism, or something old-enough-to-new: a focus on the aggregation of a million “on the ground reports” that might sometimes get us closer to the truth than three well placed sources over a nice off-the-record dinner. And I’m fascinated by this because this is the way that I, as a qualitative social scientist, have always seen as a particularly valid way to learn about the world.

Ricks’ quote, on the other hand, captures a certain strain of more traditional thinking: the point of journalism is to learn something shockingly new, hopefully from those elites in a position to really know what’s going on. Your job, as a journalist, is to get close enough to those elites so that they’ll tell you what’s really going on (a “nice” dinner, now, not just any old dinner!), and your skill as a journalist lies in your ability to hone your bullshit detector so that you can separate the self-serving goals of your sources from “the truth.” Occasionally, those elites will drop a big stack of documents on your desk, but that’s a rare occurrence.

I want to be clear: I don’t think one “new” type of journalism is going to displace the traditional way. Obviously, both journalistic forms will work together in tandem; indeed, it seems like most of what The New York Times did with “War Logs” was to run the data dump by its network of more elite sources for verification and context. But we are looking at something different here, and I think the Ricks-Corn exchange captures an important tension at the heart of this transition.

To conclude, two more reading links for you. In the first, “A Speculative Post on the Idea of Algorithmic Authority,” Clay Shirky wrote late last year that the authority system he sees emerging in a Google-dominated world values crap as much as it does quality.

Algorithmic authority is the decision to regard as authoritative an unmanaged process of extracting value from diverse, untrustworthy sources, without any human standing beside the result saying “Trust this because you trust me.”

This notion gets at the fact that a lot of the documents contained in the “War Logs” trove might have been biased, or partial, or flat-out wrong. But it doesn’t matter, Shirky might argue, in the same way that it might in the world that Ricks describes — a world where, in Shirky’s terms, an elite source is “standing beside the result saying ‘Trust this because you trust me.’”

The second link is a little more obscure. In her book How We Became Posthuman, N. Katherine Hayles argues that one of the major consequences of digitization is that we, as an informational culture, no longer focus as much on the distinction between presence and absence (“being there,” or not “being there”) as we do on the difference between pattern and randomness. In other words, “finding something new” (being there, being at dinner, getting the source to say something we didn’t know before) may not always be as important as finding the pattern in what is there already.

This is a deep point, and I can’t go into it much more in this post. But I’m thinking a lot about it these days as I ponder new forms of online journalism, and I’ll probably write about it more in the months and years ahead.

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  • Tim Maly

    The related question I’d like to see asked is which type of disclosure and story leads to more change/results/whatever-you-think-journalism-is-for.

    Do data stories grab the imagination in a way that leads to real discussion and grappling with the issues, or do we need individuals like McChrystal to latch on to and have opinions about?

    Jay Rosen worries that stories like the 92,000 docs and the exhaustive analysis of the size of the Top Secret infrastructure are too big to impel a real reaction. I worry that too.

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  • dkreiss

    I love the Hayles reference. One thing that struck me when reading your post was just how much interpretation goes into finding those ‘patterns’. Those 92,000 documents, I think, are a story of how to conjure up some sort of presence (of what, exactly? a war gone wrong?) from a mass of data (not unlike what people of our ilk do with those huge social science data sets.)

    What I worry about is that somehow the work of this interpretation gets obscured by debates over the quality of the information and what is or is not ‘revealed’ in some objective sense: “this is all they get?”

    But my broader concern — and I think that Shirky starts to go here — is with another role for journalists: as custodians of debates over moral and social values. What is meaningful in data (what we ‘find’ there) can only understood against what we believe are matters of concern; what, in essence, we are looking for answers for. And, in that sense, we need to start from that premise to think about what those Wikileaks document mean.

    And, what is interesting is that there are lots of value judgments going on here, but with no clearly formed debate and with little in the way of clarifying choices. What is at issue, exactly? For Wikileaks, it appears to be the immorality of the war in Afghanistan, on its face. For some Democratic Senators, it is about the tradeoffs between nation building at home versus abroad. For the Times, it seemed more about a bad ally and official views being at odds with what ground operatives see.

    All of which is a rambling way to say, Wikileaks is only significant against a larger backdrop of public debate over the values at stake with this war. Yet, it is that public debate — not the quality of information on the ground — that seems to be the most incoherent and the place where professional journalism (and information activists such as Wikileaks) seems most lacking. I think it is only by fully embracing their interpretative role that journalists can actively create that public debate over what to do.

  • Mthomps
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  • Matthew Battles

    I’ve been struck by the commentary of former embeds who’ve combed through the docs for reports of actions they had reported out firsthand. “It didn’t really happen this way,” they say–implying that the docs are less valuable than their embedded reporting. But it’s precisely the difference that makes this stuff so valuable. Datajournalism needs to report these discrepancies–they comprise the relief map of the information ecology of the war. Even as far back as Lippmann, it’s been known that the way intel gets from the front to the brass has an impact on how wars get prosecuted; storytelling *is* the story.

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  • 66

    If you have enough on enough people you won’t have opposition to your policies. The policies might be bad, so you need insurance that pays off. That trumps insurance that refuses to pay off, even for war veterans. The executives want to make more. We are going to have a private dinner in Washington D.C. and see who eats what. Just desserts will be on-the-record and we’ll play records after the dinner and dance. Wikileaks is dancing with death. Can I have this dance for the rest of your life?

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