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Monthly Archives: December 2010

The release of thousands of classified United States government documents by Wikileaks.org to the public has brought up questions regarding national security and media ethics.  Pfc. Bradley Manning is being accused in the leak, though he has not been charged.  Manning is thought to have played a role in a case involving the release of a video back in March showing U.S. forces killing Iraqi journalists.  He was charged in July for receiving classified information and for wrongfully accessing a government computer (Fishel).

I didn’t know anything about Wikileaks before this most recent story broke.  Looking at the website, this organization describes itself as not-for-profit group that seeks to provide the truth to the public.  One of the ways this organization accomplishes this is by receiving leaked information from people through a secure electronic drop-box.  It says what it does is important because providing this information to the public creates transparency, which reduces corruption in government and creates a better society for all (Wikileaks.org).

While the truth is valuable to any journalist, other factors come into play when deciding what information to use and what information to suppress.  While people may want to know the information contained in these cables, the more important question is whether people need to know this information.  Government officials, such as Hillary Clinton, say the release of this information poses a threat to our national security and puts certain peoples’ lives in danger.  This sounds like a standard issue answer from someone in the government.  Of course the government doesn’t want the documents released.  It has its share of secrets and it doesn’t want them to get out to the public, whether national security is at stake or not.  It seems anymore that “national security” is a catchall term, and it can have far reaching effects if wielded carelessly.

Some of the documents appear to only embarrass those in the government.  If an ambassador or high-ranking U.S. official makes a comment about a foreign counterpart that can be taken negatively, and this is leaked to the public, is this really a matter of national security?  Perhaps, insofar as that official might now fear for his safety.  However, does revealing it pose a great risk to us all?  Why was such a comment made in the first place?  The real problem might be that our leaders can’t keep their mouths shut.  It seems that a person is asking for trouble if comments like these are kept in a government document.  It’s only a matter of time before the “wrong” person gets his hands on them.

I think releasing this information is ethical, in part because, as the Wikileaks site states, the information it receives is verified before being published.  In terms of the validity of the information being provided, it seems that there would be no reason to withhold it.  From a national security standpoint, it is possible that some of the documents might pose a threat, but who is going to decide which ones?  The government will make that decision, and it’s not going to pick and choose what is a threat.  Everything will be labeled a threat.  By consulting one’s conscience about the ethical ramifications of publishing these documents, it is difficult because a major stakeholder will never approve of your actions.

With that being said, I don’t know if reporters in mainstream news should rely on Wikileaks as a source of information for stories, at least not on a regular basis.  In this case, the news was major, so every media outlet was going to report on it.  Generally speaking, though, I don’t think it is a good idea.  This might seem strange given the fact that I just said it was ethical for Wikileaks to release this information, but I do have a concern about the site.  I can’t find any information about who operates it.  Under the “About Wikileaks” section, it states that accredited journalists make up part of the group that runs the site, but no one’s name is ever mentioned.  Also, because of the site’s nature, along with the flak it has taken from various government agencies around the world, the sources used in obtaining their information are concealed for security reasons.  Never revealing sources tends to diminish credibility.  If people feel they can’t trust Wikileaks, which I can’t ascertain, given that I don’t know much about the site, then using this site could also hurt the credibility of an outside journalist using Wikileaks to gather information for a story.

As I said before, however, in an instance like this where major news is breaking, and Wikileaks is the one in possession of the key information necessary to cover the story, a news outlet doesn’t have any choice but to rely on the site.  I don’t know to what extent Wikileaks normally contributes to the mainstream media, but for this story, it is spoon-feeding mainstream news sources.  According to the Cablegate Wikileaks page, only 291 of the 251,287 cables have been released so far.  This means that Wikileaks could be feeding the news cycle for quite some time as new documents are revealed to the public.

By accepting information that was illegally obtained, is controversial and that could result in legal action being taken, Wikileaks is taking a risk that other news organizations probably would not take.  In taking this chance, Wikileaks gives people the opportunity to become familiar with the site, as the mainstream media continues to cite them as the source of this information.  Add in the fact that these documents are being released a little bit at a time, and this situation could lead to the site becoming better known in time.

 

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