HOME
          
LATEST STORY
Ken Doctor: Why The New York Times hired Kinsey Wilson
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Dec. 21, 2010, 2 p.m.

#NiemanLeaks big takeaway? Even post-WikiLeaks, context still key

The Nieman Foundation’s Secrecy and Journalism conference last week set out to tackle a lot of questions, but perhaps none were as big as the central one posed to attendees: What should journalism’s role be in this new environment of distributed leakers, massive databases, and citizen reporters.

The answer most of the panels seemed to reach, however, might be a comforting one: Provide the context and texture behind the data, while vetting sources for accuracy and agenda. Not too different from what journalist have always been supposed to do — but now the tools, sources, and audience have come together to allow for a much richer, deeper form of reporting than has ever been possible.

We’ve summed up and posted video and liveblogs from each of the conference sessions. But after sifting through it all, here are my five key takeaways from the discussion.

Data needs context

While Julian Assange initially relied on radical transparency as a tool to spur change, he quickly learned that crafting a narrative around the raw documents produced a much more dramatic result. Even The New York Times’ Bill Keller acknowledged WikiLeaks has “evolved.” The new leak revolution begins looking more and more like the old guard, even as it collaborates with them.

Beware secrecy’s hard liners

The U.S.’s classification system may or may not be broken, as CJR’s Clint Hendler suggested in one panel — but it definitely has quirks, shortcomings, and fallibilities. As Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, put it: “It’s important not to take too seriously what the government says is and isn’t classified. It’s a game.”

Vet, vet, vet

Whether dealing with Deep Throat, a whistleblower, or a shadowy international band of hackers, journalists need to look at their sources critically, questioning the source’s agenda as well as ensuring the material is authentic. As Keller noted, The New York Times has treated WikiLeaks as a source, not a partner. Just because the form of the source has changed doesn’t change the fundamental relationship. And as an added warning, note Walter Pincus’ admonition that almost all of the “new” sources that approach him are simply wrong.

WikiLeaks hasn’t (yet) established a new order

With technology — particularly technology under siege — distributed tends to win over centralized, and there are already new organizations popping up all over hoping to take WikiLeaks’ mantle. The more fundamental point, however, is that similar leaks have been driving much of journalism in the United States and around the world for decades — meaning there may be less new and different about WikiLeaks than there is familiar to any good investigative journalist.

The hard work is just beginning

Despite all the opportunities and changes occurring, the basic grunt work of investigative journalism is still boring, tedious, and, particularly at the local level, critical to serving as an effective watchdog for democracy.

POSTED     Dec. 21, 2010, 2 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Secrecy and Journalism
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Ken Doctor: Why The New York Times hired Kinsey Wilson
The former chief content officer at NPR will be moving up I-95 to one of the most important digital positions at the Times.
Why Google is taking another shot at helping readers pay for news
Google Contributor is the latest tool the company has designed to help readers pay for what they read online. But its previous experiments in supporting paid content have had limited success.
In Canada, newspapers’ attempts to experiment with ebooks haven’t seen much success
A number of papers across the country started ebook programs in the early part of this decade, repurposing their archives or producing new work. They haven’t been the moneymakers some had hoped.
What to read next
718
tweets
Ken Doctor: The New York Times’ financials show the transition to digital accelerating
The numbers may look flat, but they contain a continuing set of ups and downs. Up next: executing on a year’s worth of launches.
540Here’s some remarkable new data on the power of chat apps like WhatsApp for sharing news stories
At least in certain contexts, WhatsApp is a truly major traffic driver — bigger even than Facebook. Should there be a WhatsApp button on your news site?
502Controlled chaos: As journalism and documentary film converge in digital, what lessons can they share?
Old and new media types from journalism, documentary, and technology backgrounds gathered at MIT to share practices and discuss mutual concerns.
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
The Atlantic
Amazon
California Watch
Investigative Reporting Workshop
Quora
SeeClickFix
NBCNews.com
The Bay Citizen
Grist
The Dish
Ushahidi
Windy Citizen