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Dec. 20, 2010, 1 p.m.

In an age of free-flowing information, there’s still a role for journalists to provide context

The Washington Post’s venerable national security reporter Walter Pincus wants to make one thing clear: He isn’t just hopping on the WikiLeaks bandwagon.

“I used WikiLeaks before [it] became famous,” he said at last week’s secrecy in journalism conference at the Nieman Foundation. “[They] used to release one document at a time, which is the way I can handle it; I can’t handle 250,000 cables dumped in one day.” The massive amount of data now available, and the dearth of reporters tasked with examining it, was a recurring theme during the conference’s panel on gatekeepers and secrecy.

Pincus’ views on WikiLeaks largely echoed New York Times executive editor Bill Keller’s approach, which was to treat WikiLeaks and Julian Assange as any other source. But Pincus and other panelists went further, saying WikiLeaks was the effect and not the cause of a more distributed age, where information comes in many forms and the challenge for journalists is sorting through potential stories to find out what is meaningful, and then placing that meaning in context.

“Just having access to the information doesn’t mean we can understand it,” said Clint Hendler, a staff writer with the Columbia Journalism Review. “One of the key functions of a journalist used to be breaking that barrier of entry [of access]. But as the data is available [more widely], the other aspects of being a traditional journalists remain.” This means verifying the data, determining whether it’s important and contextualizing it.

Hendler said that this last role, of helping readers understand the information they’re given, was a task WikiLeaks originally held off from, preferring to be a pure conduit of raw information. That changed this past spring, when the organization released its video “Collateral Murder,” a leaked video which showed two Reuters news staff killed by a U.S. helicopters. This release, in addition to the editorializing title, included explanations of the ongoing attack as well as copies of the U.S. Rules of Engagement.

“Contrast this to what they could have done, and what they had largely done until that point: Just upload the video file,” Hendler said. “This video got a lot of attention because it was so graphic…but it also planted the seeds of a strategy in that these raw documents have a much greater impact when they’re put in context and with reporting.”

The shift has largely been overlooked as pundits debate whether WikiLeaks is “journalism,” but even Keller admitted that the organization has evolved toward journalism. That actually might be good news for traditional journalists, as even advocates for radical transparency realize that simply dumping data is rarely enough to provoke a response, particularly when there is an extreme glut of data to absorb.

Pincus said that would be true even without organizations like WikiLeaks. “There are an enormous number of public sources of information: court documents, public records that when I was young, I hate to say, we all used to read,” he said. Now, the sheer volume of information coming out of the federal government is almost impossible to track: He said when he started, there were two public hearings a day in Washington; now there are 40. “There is more news in Washington that is fit to print. My problem is, and Wikileaks highlights it, how much of it has actually been read?”

Fit to print

But beyond the sheer volume of data is the question of what is worth publishing and investigating. The panelists agreed that whether a document is marked “Secret” or not is a poor standard.

Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, often helps whistleblowers work through official government channels to correct problems before taking leaks to the public. Even then, however, the legal contortions the government uses to classify documents can take bizarre turns. She recounted one instance where she was brought to a secure room, asked a few questions, and given “temporary security clearance” to discuss some documents, clearance that was immediately revoked aftewards. “It’s important not to take too seriously what the government says is and isn’t classified,” she said. “It’s a game.”

Pincus said he had a four-part standard he used when deciding to publish information: Is it true? Is it relevant? Is there a way to give it to people? Is it something that I think the public ought to know?

He said ultimately it’s the best interest of the readers that should guide journalists, rather than relying on political pleas. “Our responsibility is to serve our readers,” he said. “We’re essentially not a national paper, we’re a local paper whose realm is national news because we’re based in Washington.”

The local connection

The emphasis on the local was shared by Maggie Mulvihill, founder and senior investigative producer at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. She said worked like NECIR’s, which focuses on public service journalism in the New England area, is particularly important since papers like The Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal are still keeping a spotlight on national institutions even as local watchdogs are disappearing.

“In Massachusetts, the last three Speakers of the House have been indicted,” she said. “When our leaders are up to no good, they need to know we are watching.”

POSTED     Dec. 20, 2010, 1 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Secrecy and Journalism
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