A special report on the news industry: WikiLeaks and other newcomers
Julian Assange and the new wave
A host of non-profit actors have entered the news business, blurring the line between journalism and activism
Jul 7th 2011 | from the print edition
THE BEATEN-UP RED car crunched up the driveway and came to a halt outside an English manor house. A tall, strangely hunched woman emerged into the November night and hurried indoors. In fact it was Julian Assange, the boss of WikiLeaks, who had donned a wig to disguise himself as an old woman as he travelled from London to a safe house in Norfolk. That may have been a tad dramatic, but there can be no doubt about Mr Assange’s prominence among a group of unconventional new actors in the news business that have emerged lately.
These are non-profit organisations that are involved in various forms of investigative journalism. As funding for such reporting by traditional media has been cut, they are filling the gap using new methods based on digital technology. Some of them make government information available in order to promote openness, transparency and citizen engagement; some gather and publish information on human-rights abuses; and some specialise in traditional investigative journalism and are funded by philanthropy.
And then there is WikiLeaks. Launched in late 2006, it was intended to be “an uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis”, with the aim of “exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet block, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East”. Inspirations included Wikipedia, the web encyclopedia written by volunteers, and the leak of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg to the New York Times during the Vietnam war, which ultimately led to a Supreme Court ruling that “only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.” WikiLeaks welcomes documents from whistle-blowers and provides anonymous drop boxes. It is funded by donations and staffed by volunteers.
In its first three years WikiLeaks published leaked material on a range of subjects, including corruption in Kenya, the church of Scientology, Sarah Palin’s e-mails, the membership of a British nationalist party and a Peruvian oil scandal. But in 2010 it abandoned the wiki-style approach and adopted a new, editorialising tone. In July that year it worked with three mainstream news organisations—the New York Times, DerSpiegel and the Guardian—to publish a cache of 75,000 documents relating to the war in Afghanistan. Speaking to The Economist at the time, Mr Assange explained that such partnerships gave it more impact than if it simply posted leaked material online and expected people to seek it out. “We see actually that the professional press has a nose for what a story will be—the general public becomes involved once there is a story, and then can come forward and help mine the material.”
A further cache of nearly 400,000 documents, relating to the Iraq war, was released in October, and in November five newspapers began to publish highlights from over 250,000 diplomatic cables sent by American embassies around the world. But by this time the relationship between WikiLeaks and its media partners was breaking down, and WikiLeaks itself was in turmoil. Mr Assange was fighting an extradition request in the British courts from Swedish prosecutors who want to question him about two alleged sexual assaults, and his increasingly imperious behaviour prompted the departure of several of his key associates. Ironically, WikiLeaks itself sprang a leak and some of its material was passed to its estranged media partners, which no longer felt they had to co-ordinate publication with Mr Assange.
Despite WikiLeaks’ difficulties, its approach is being adopted by others. Al Jazeera has set up a “transparency unit” with a WikiLeaks-style anonymous drop box. The Wall Street Journal launched a drop box of its own in May, but was criticised for not offering enough protection to leakers. “Everyone’s looking at the idea,” says the Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger, “but if you’re going to do it you have to make it really secure.”
What happens next depends in part on the fate of Mr Assange and of Bradley Manning, an American soldier who has been charged with passing confidential information to WikiLeaks. If American prosecutors can show that Mr Assange encouraged Mr Manning to leak the material, they may try to charge WikiLeaks’ boss with conspiracy. That would be worrying for news organisations in general, because it would strike at the idea that journalists should be able to develop relationships with confidential sources without fear of prosecution.
WikiLeaks seems to be hoping that by calling itself a news organisation it will be protected by the First Amendment. The “about” page on the WikiLeaks website, which used to describe the organisation as “an excellent source for journalists”, has been rewritten to describe its activities as journalism, its staff as journalists and Mr Assange as its editor-in-chief. There has been much debate about whether Mr Assange should be regarded as a journalist; Mr Rusbridger calls him “a new breed of publisher-intermediary”. Jay Rosen of New York University says such arguments show that in the digital age “the very boundaries around journalism are collapsing.” WikiLeaks is not the only example.
The Sunlight Foundation, based in Washington, DC, also campaigns for government openness and transparency, but in a different way from WikiLeaks. Its aim is to make government data more easily accessible, both to journalists and to ordinary citizens. Its Transparency Data website, for example, is a database of federal and state campaign contributions, federal grants and contracts, and lobbying disclosures going back 20 years; Party Time keeps track of the political party circuit; Checking Influence is a database of campaign contributions and lobbying activity by companies. All this provides raw material for journalists, but the compilation and presentation of these data sometimes shades into journalism.
Ellen Miller, the organisation’s co-founder, cites the example of Sunlight Live, which combines a live video stream of government proceedings on a web page with information from Sunlight’s databases to provide context. “As different people speak, we talk about their backgrounds, whether they have campaign contributions, whether they are involved in lobbying,” says Ms Miller. “That’s clearly journalism.” Sunlight Live won an award for innovation in journalism last year, and its technology will be made available to other organisations. Sunlight also takes pictures of people attending public hearings so that it can identify lobbyists. That is journalism too, says Ms Miller: “We want to use the tools of journalism to open up government.”
The line between activism and journalism has always been somewhat fuzzy, but has become even fuzzier in the digital age. The Sunlight Foundation has been closely involved in the campaign to get the American government to provide more information about its workings, which led to the data.gov site being set up in 2009 (though its funding is now under threat). There have been similar initiatives in Britain, Australia and New Zealand, and several American cities and states have made information available about anything from procurement contracts to traffic accidents. Websites have sprung up that present such data in a user-friendly form, such as mySociety.org’s TheyWorkForYou, which provides information on British politicians and is starting to add brief summaries of their activities. Is that journalism? No, says Myf Nixon, a spokesman for mySociety, because the website merely aggregates facts that are available elsewhere. But the same could be said of the Sunlight Foundation.
In the developing world, transparency campaigners are pushing for greater openness about aid flows and the governance of natural resources, and campaign groups are often the most credible sources of information about human-rights abuses. In the past, bringing such information to wider attention meant working with news organisations and getting them to publish the information. Yet thanks to the web, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can now also publish material independently. “The same internet that has blown a gaping hole in media budgets is also allowing NGOs to reach their audiences directly,” observed Carroll Bogert of Human Rights Watch (HRW), a global campaigning group, in a report published in January. But that requires NGOs to change the way they operate.
This is beginning to happen. HRW now sends photographers and radio producers to work alongside its researchers in the field. Amnesty International is creating a “news unit” staffed by five journalists, and Médecins Sans Frontières produces photographs and video of its work. “We are beginning to realise that there’s a far wider range of people who are qualified, have the integrity and are competent to be part of the reporting picture—and NGOs are part of that picture,” says Sameer Padania, who advises human-rights groups on the use of technology. But no matter how painstaking the reporting, it has been produced to serve a particular agenda. So being able to verify the accuracy and provenance of material is vital, he says.
Dan Gillmor, a veteran journalist who is now a professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, observes that some of the best reporting on conditions at Guantánamo Bay was done by the American Civil Liberties Union, and that HRW produced an excellent report on the abuse of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. But he says reporting by advocacy groups often falls just short of journalism. Such groups may not give sufficient weight to opposing views or fully reflect nuances in the subject. In the end, says Mr Gillmor, what matters is not whether or not particular people qualify as journalists but whether the work they produce is thorough, accurate, fair and transparent enough to qualify as journalism.
Making up for a market failure
There is also growing interest in investigative news organisations that operate on a non-profit model, particularly in America. The Centre for Investigative Reporting (CIR), based in Berkeley, California, was founded in 1977 and describes itself as “the nation’s oldest non-profit investigative news organisation”. Since 2008 it has expanded and reinvented itself as a multimedia news producer under the leadership of Robert Rosenthal, a former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Centre for Public Integrity was founded in 1989. A more recent entrant to the field is ProPublica, launched in 2008 under the leadership of Paul Steiger, a former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal.
All three organisations produce stories that are syndicated to newspapers, television and radio stations and websites across America. Non-profit news outfits have been popping up at the state and city levels, too. They are needed because there has been a market failure in the creation of some kinds of content, including investigative reporting, says Dick Tofel, general manager of ProPublica. His organisation’s aim is to help fill that gap. ProPublica has already won two Pulitzer prizes for its work, including investigations into the financial crisis and the provision of health care in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (with the New York Times magazine). But although these three organisations are well funded for the next few years, the long-term viability of philanthropic funding is still uncertain.
All these organisations work across a range of different media, producing versions of the same story for different outlets, which has led to some innovative work. ProPublica collaborated with journalism students to produce a music video called “The Fracking Song”, part of an investigation into the impact of shale-gas extraction. The CIR exposed failings in the enforcement of earthquake-safety laws in California’s schools in a project entitled “On Shaky Ground” which resulted in a series of articles, audio and video, as well as interactive maps and databases—and a colouring book in five languages to help educate children about earthquake safety. “I ran a newspaper with 630 people and a $75m budget and we never would have dreamt of doing this,” says Mr Rosenthal. The project also shades into activism, providing contact details for local officials. “You can point people to information, guide people to take action,” Mr Rosenthal adds. “Getting people to come together around problems is something the media can do more and more.”
The discussion about where lines should be drawn between non-profit journalism and journalism by non-profits is still evolving. But it is clear that non-profit groups of various kinds are beginning to fill some of the gap left behind as traditional news outfits shrink.