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Why WikiLeaks’ latest document dump makes everyone in journalism — and the public — a winner

For some, WikiLeaks’ recent dump of diplomatic cables seems to make an excellent case for why traditional journalism still matters. Others, however, suggest that the widespread condemnation of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is a sign of a toothless legacy media that can’t do its own work — and a triumph for new forms of journalism.

The truth is, though, that everyone here is a winner — traditional media and non-traditional journalism and, most importantly, the public.

Much of this conversation has come out of a discussion about the comparison between the Pentagon Papers’ combined 7,000 pages of documents and WikiLeaks’ 251,000 or so diplomatic cables. And as Mediaite summed up in an excellent post after this summer’s WikiLeaked release of AfPak documents, that comparison is both fair to make and overly simplistic. One thing is clear, though: The web has changed the nature of the debate when it comes to the release of secret documents.

In that, we need to remember that the ultimate concern, as Bill Keller has noted, is the distribution of information to the public. But boasting over who matters more in achieving that end, legacy media or non-, doesn’t get us very far.* Both camps are making excellent points.

Here are a few reasons why traditional media proved it still matters to the discussion.

1. Traditional journalists get to show the value that comes from parsing through complicated details — and now, from investing in resources that make that information visually appealing.

In sorting through the WikiLeak-ed cables, traditional journalists generally took the time to shape and create a story that made sense — by putting together complicated diplomatic cables that only a select few in the public would be able to decode with the same comprehensive sweep. The resulting narratives were built on a legacy of the kind of reporting that comes from a detailed understanding of the history and tensions chronicled in the cables; they drew on the expertise of multiple reporters who understand how the leaked cables fit into a larger story.

And, on the visual side, perhaps more interesting than ever before are the terrific graphics that teams at Der Spiegel, The New York Times, and The Guardian, among the big three to receive the cables, have been able to put together to illustrate the cables’ information. The human resources required to produce those visuals — from programmers to multimedia producers — likely could not be replicated at the same scale with the same complexity — and within the same time frame — by non-legacy journalists.

2. Traditional journalists get to show their power in setting the news agenda.

As WikiLeaks itself makes clear in its Cablegate FAQ, the outfit chose to collaborate with the selected mainstream media organizations because:

Wikileaks makes to a promise to its sources: that will obtain the maximum possible impact for their release [sic]. Doing this requires journalists and researchers to spend extensive periods of time scrutinising the material.

The established partners chosen were among the few with the resources necessary to spend many weeks ahead of publication making a start on their analysis.

“Maximum possible impact” means journalists parsing the data, yes — but in the end, it also means that people will pay attention to the data that gets sorted because it’s in the mainstream news. The outlets selected reach tremendous numbers of people, including the halls of power. Their reach is the source of their impact.

3. Traditional journalism demonstrates the importance of a relationship with power

Unlike the citizen journalist, for example, The New York Times was able to talk to the Obama administration about the cables and, essentially, negotiate about the content of the cables it would release. Similarly, the newspapers were able to get comment for their reporting from those in power. Regardless of what you might say about the dependency of news organizations on official sources, this access to power is something that the average citizen combing through cables simply doesn’t have. And that access adds to our understanding of the impact of these cables.

But, then: Whatever we call WikiLeaks – news source, news provider, content host, whistle-blower, enemy of the state — the outfit also makes a case for the relevance of non-traditional forms of news. Here’s why:

1. WikiLeaks shows the power of one person to change the conversation in a way never before possible.

Though Pfc. Bradley Manning has been charged with leaking unauthorized, classified information to WikiLeaks, his alleged distribution of sensitive material demonstrates the power of one person to change the conversation. Why is he different from Daniel Ellsberg? For one thing, the Pentagon Papers were entered into the Congressional record for publication — for filtering — while the cables are available, in raw form, to anyone who cares to examine them. WikiLeaks has created an instantly accessible record for people around the world to have a look at for themselves.

When the Times published excerpts of the Pentagon Papers, they were unveiled, according to John T. Correll of Air Force Magazine, in a manner that was both underwhelming and nearly impossible to read. Quotes Time magazine, he describes “six pages of deliberately low-key prose and column after gray column of official cables, memorandums, and position papers.” And then: “The mass of material seemed to repel readers and even other newsmen. Nearly a day went by before the networks and wire services took note.”

Eventually, only 134 of the documents were published, nowhere near the total 7,000 documents available for potential distribution (though the Times did come out with a book shortly after, which featured many more of those documents). WikiLeaks, thanks to the web, makes the spread of information — again, provided by one person — possible in ways never before possible.

2. WikiLeaks reinforces the importance of establishing a trove of documents so anyone can make their own interpretations.

In positioning itself as a middle ground between press and whistle-blower, WikiLeaks itself makes the documents it’s gathered available on its own site, with just bare-bones commentary. The Guardian, too, makes it possible to download the basic data (without body text, though) for yourself. This is a sign of a renewed commitment to transparency from news organizations. And furthermore, and most importantly, WikiLeaks demonstrates its belief in the value of everyday people enjoying access to information. If the broad goal is ultimately to inform the public, there is no better way to achieve that than to give people a combination of all the information available and the guided commentary of mainstream news.

3. WikiLeaks shows the power of collaboration between mainstream news and non-legacy forms of news content, production, and distribution

Imagine this: Look at what happens when mainstream news and whatever we want to call WikiLeaks work together. The forces are not in opposition but are united with a common goal — again, informing the public — and the result is that mainstream news can do what it does best thanks to the help of the information WikiLeaks provides. (But, of course, it couldn’t do it without WikiLeaks.) This is a moment of glory for all those who talk about crowdsourcing, user-generated content, and the like. Perhaps this is the ultimate form of users helping to create and shape the news. And the result is a better-informed public.

The takeaway here: Everyone in journalism — from its practitioners to its recipients — emerges from this data drop as a winner.

*We deleted a line originally in this sentence; see Jay’s note in the comments.

                                   
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