Ethical Leaks

The most telling comment on the morality of Wikileaks is the reaction of its detractors.

Scenes from the Arab Spring, which was caused in part by revelations from Wikileaks

In 2010, when journalists were evenly divided between pro- and anti-Wikileaks, both sides were writing articles using the information from the leaks. The difference was that the anti- side were hypocrites. They were arguing that both Julian Assange and Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning should be tried for treason, and some were calling for the death penalty. But they were still writing scores of articles using the information.

Many of these articles would start by talking about what a shame it was that the leaks had been released, and reiterating the treasonous moral failings of everyone involved — but then the rest of the article would be about some of the fascinating or horrifying facts that had been discovered in the trove of documents.

In the article: “Friend or Foe: Wikileaks and the Guardian,” an unnamed colleague of Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, had the same reaction that I and many other journalists had to the moral quandary of publishing these secrets. He observed, “Others will publish the same material if we desist. Our duty is to set these stories in context.”

The anti-Wikileaks reporters who still used the leaks as sources surely had a similar rationale: “Others [Wikileaks as well as the Guardian, The New York Times, etc] have already published these documents. As long as they’re freely available online, I have no moral duty to refrain from taking advantage of this sensational information — in fact, I *do* have a duty to give readers context about the cables that pertain to my area of expertise.”

Julian Assange fully intended to publish with or without the Guardian, and the media did have the responsibility to put the documents in context. Nowadays, with the Internet, a whistleblower who wants to get his or her information to the public will get it out there whether or not you as a journalist help out. Even without Wikileaks, a whistleblower could contact other news organizations, and would eventually find one that was interested, who might not be as willing to put weeks into redacting the documents.

The Guardian, Times, and Der Spiegel did consider at length the morality of publishing articles using the leaked documents, and in the end it sounds like they made an argument similar to mine.

It’s interesting that the most dramatic political fallout from those 2010 leaks was the Arab Spring, which was spurred by diplomatic cables the Western media probably overlooked. It shows how powerful revealing the truth can be: Though there were only six leaked cables from the US Embassy in Tunisia, the new information was enough to shake the foundation of the government and create a chain reaction across the Arab world. One cable in particular, that talked of the opulent lifestyle of the rulers, including a pet tiger, was passed through social media and reported on TV news. The divide between the rich and poor spurred frustration that lead to the self-immolation of the fruit vendor, the first domino in the Tunisian revolution. While there is no suicide note from the vendor, scholars agree that the information from that cable was so ubiquitous that he had surely seen it.

As for whether Julian Assange is a source, editor, or something else — he seems to be more an information broker than a source. He is still taking a great risk, but the information isn’t his. The internet has blurred many of the lines in journalism, so many of the old definitions don’t apply now anyway. The fact that he had to seek out mainstream media to get his leaks to the public shows that the Olde Media still has a place in this world.


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