Skip to main content
University of Wisconsin–Madison
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

How to Reveal Secrets

Whistleblowing can afflict the comfortable, but can also do more harm than good, Stephen J.A. Wardwrites. When will sites like WikiLeaks produce a code of ethics?

Not long ago, WikiLeaks, a web site that publishes secret material and opposes “oppressive regimes,” released some 90,000 classified documents on the Afghan war. It also made the documents available in advance to three newspapers, The New York Times,the Guardian, and Der Spiegel.

The release of this data sparked an ethics firestorm. The news media’s ethics of revealing secrets was given a new and controversial twist.
Journalists, officials, and the public debated the practices of “stateless” web sites such as WikiLeaks. Should such sites accept ethical boundaries on what they publish? When should mainstream newsrooms cooperate with such sites? Are journalists unpatriotic — perhaps “aiding the enemy” — in publishing classified war documents?

Creature of mixed media

To understand the challenge to journalism ethics, consider the nature of WikiLeaks and the media environment that sustains it.

WikiLeaks is a creature of today’s mixed media where old and new media collide and collaborate; where professionals, amateurs and advocates work in the same media ecology.

The technology of mixed media creates an online world where hybrid sites exercise political and moral power. WikiLeaks is one of them. First appearing on the Internet in 2007, the site was created by an ill-defined group of dissidents, journalists, advocates, and start-up technologists from the US, Europe, South Africa, Australia, and Taiwan.

WikiLeaks’ structure is opaque. It is operated by a handful of full-time workers and many unnamed volunteers. It is still not clear who its creators were. It has no official headquarters, although WikiLeaks has a spokesperson in Australian advocate Julian Assange. It maintains documents on servers in several countries.

Opaqueness helps WikiLeaks avoid official control. It gives WikiLeaks real influence and political power. It makes the old method of asking government for documents through information laws look passé.

But the power of Wikileaks is also moral. Wikileaks is seen by many as an Internet cowboy on a white horse, fighting the dark forces of censorship, corruption, and military secrecy.  It celebrates the Internet’s love of free voices and combines it with a journalist’s hatred of secrecy. Therefore, WikiLeaks gains the support of whistleblowers, volunteer encryptors, plus legal (and other) support from mainstream news organizations.
So what’s the ethical problem?

Power and ethics

The problem is that with power come questions about responsibility and accountability.

On this score, WikiLeaks has work to do. When any media entity gains political and moral power, ethicists and journalists should sit up and ask tough questions. This is especially the case where the entity has an opaque structure, a beguiling rhetoric, and is operated by advocates.

Here are some questions I want to ask WikiLeaks:

Is there any secret information the site would not publish? If so, what is it and why? Does the site agree there are valid reasons for secrecy in some cases, and if so, what are those cases? Would WikiLeaks publish NATO codes for protection against nuclear attack? Would it publish the security plans of energy installations or airports against terrorist attack? Would it publish information that would place in danger individuals, informants, or soldiers?

Could WikiLeaks please tell me more about its editorial processes? Since it likely won’t identify who makes the decisions, can it at least explain in detail how it decides what to publish?

Moreover, what is its politics? When WikiLeaks presents data on its web site, does it attempt to be accurate, complete, and fair? And, by the way, whom does WikiLeaks consider an oppressive regime? The USA? China? Iran? Canada?  Will the advocates of the site publish secrets from all countries equally, or will they favor reports that support their favored causes or do damage to countries they dislike?

If their site makes a major mistake, to whom should the public complain? How?

I call on WikiLeaks to publish a detailed code of ethics that answers these questions. If I can expect this of CNN or the CBC, why not WikiLeaks? Or do we simply have faith in the largely faceless folks working on the site?

Collaborate

How should professional newsrooms collaborate with these sites?  Here, the rules of collaboration should be no different from the rules for using data from any external source. All data should be verified independently. Newsrooms must be free to write about the information as they see fit. Since newsrooms are targeted by these web sites to advance agendas, newsrooms should take extra care in vetting the material.

Take the Afghan documents, for example. Journalists should weigh two factors: The information’s value for the public versus the harm that publication may cause. Here, as elsewhere in journalism, we balance truth telling and minimizing harm by asking: Will this information help the public understand the war better, assess the war’s current direction, its aims, and the military strategy? Will it help the public determine how much of what the White House, the Pentagon, and Ottawa are saying about the war is truthful and complete?

On the other hand, journalists need to ask: Will this information directly or immediately harm anyone, such as an informant or soldiers on the ground? Vague fears of ‘potential’ harm won’t cut it. But cases where harm is likely require journalists to minimize or avoid harm.

Using these standards, The New York Times and the other two news outlets made the right call in writing about the Afghan documents. The documents were not challenged as to their overall authenticity; vetting supported their veracity; and the news outlets had a chance to do their own independent analysis of the data. I am not aware of any major direct harms to soldiers, (or others) resulting from the release of the documents. I was happy that The New York Times took efforts to not publish certain types of information that could have jeopardized individuals.

Stop cheerleading

In summary, we need to spark a discussion on newsrooms’ ethical policies on publishing secret documents. But, more than that, we need to critically challenge these sites about their ethics, even if they play to our journalistic love of free media. We should not allow new practices to develop in an ethical vacuum.

By challenging WikiLeaks to produce a code, I am not opposing the site or calling on governments to crush it. I am only insisting on open and responsible ethical policies.

The development of WikiLeaks is both exhilarating and worrisome. Exhilarating to those who favor a free flow of information and dislike secrets; worrisome to those who wonder where a policy of releasing any and all secrets will lead.

We in the news media world need to strike a balance between an attitude that too-easily accepts government secrecy and a reckless attitude that sees no ethical problems with publishing whatever comes into one’s email in-box.
We need a serious debate on the ethics of secrecy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *