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WikiLeaks Hits Home

Posted on Tuesday, December 28, 2010 at 1:36 PM

How would you handle your own WikiLeaks conundrum? Many editors find serious ethical and legal implications in the scandal.

By Meredith L. Dias

What if you or one of your freelancers stumbled upon top-secret information of significance to your readers? Would you publish the information or keep it classified? The WikiLeaks scandal has raised this ethical question, and many others, for journalists and editors everywhere.

We recently approached editors with a hypothetical situation: What would they do if presented with classified/sensitive information that could make or break a story? Would the information involving foreign governments have any bearing on their decision? The response was as passionate as it was varied; editors discussed everything from the First Amendment to legal issues to journalism ethics.

The Measured Response

A lot of editors we spoke to didn't take sides. Instead, they pointed to a host of considerations a publication ought to take before releasing sensitive information to the public. "For me, the decision would be based on the content of the material," says editor and journalist Carolyne Gould. "I would need the information to in some way benefit humanity (i.e., save lives, prevent a war). If it were what we used to call 'yellow journalism,' I would not release it."

Other editors supported a similar approach. "It would depend on the content that was leaked, and what the repercussions of making it public would be," says technology industry editor and writer Charles Masi. "For example, recent leaks have provided information that would be embarrassing to certain governments. In that case, so what? They're big guys and can stand a little embarrassment. On the other hand, I believe some leaked information has included names of agents who might be compromised -- as in killed. I wouldn't want to be responsible for making that public."

Masi also emphasizes the importance of the public domain in the dissemination of information, noting that some leaked material was associated with published research. "The flurry of leaked emails regarding IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] scientific documents was highly embarrassing to the U.N., but, generally, all documentation backing up published research should be public domain, anyway. It would have been easy to decide to publish that content."

Ben Martin, editor-in-chief of The Father Life, takes nationality into consideration. "If it's a foreign government, I wouldn't think twice. Run that story! If it's my own government, that becomes more complicated. Are there legal ramifications? Are there national security ramifications? Those would have to be carefully weighed."

The Case Against Dissemination

Other editors who responded to our survey were vehemently against the publication of classified information. "Printing knowingly leaked classified material is fatally irresponsible," says one editor, who wished to remain anonymous. Another remarked, "I never went to j-school, so I've never been indoctrinated in the freedom of the press."

Some survey respondents tempered their opposition a bit. One editor associated with the U.S. government said that he "would always err on the side of not upsetting the interests of the [government] if there was some national security concern, due to my own values as well as my employer's."

David Gewirtz, publisher and editor-in-chief of Zatz Publishing, agrees. Like the anonymous editor above, he works with national security professionals. "I would immediately contact my colleagues in the U.S. government national security command authority, report the incident, and related details. I would not publish."

The Case for Dissemination

Other editors, however, note the ethical and constitutional roles of the press. "The proper role of the Press is to 'comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,'" says Curtis Phillips, senior technical editor of Wine Business Monthly and Wine Business Insider. "If more journalists were doing this rather than kowtowing to their corporatist masters, we wouldn't need WikiLeaks. Domestically, it is a straightforward First Amendment issue. Either we have freedom of the press or we don't."

Brian Carlson, editorial director and editor-in-chief of CIO Online, shares his case for dissemination: "As an editor and writer, and American citizen, I support the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment. If the content I received was of interest and I deemed it to be important material to my reader base, and publishing that material was in the scope of my editorial mission, then, yes, I would release that information. It would be my duty and responsibility to my readership and the values and ideals of a free democratic press to do so. First Amendment rights of the press have a long history and precedence, especially in cases such as the Pentagon Papers; that protects my right to provide information to the populace. If I did suppress that information due to pressure from said government body, I would be negligent in my duties as an editor."

An Unanticipated Consensus

As illustrated in this article, there is no ideological consensus when it comes to hot-button issues like the role and parameters of the press and freedom of information. There are simply too many variables for that. The consensus lies in the reaction. Regardless of position, editors and journalists across the board were on fire over the WikiLeaks scandal.

We often discuss the changing nature of content delivery in Editors Only and our sister newsletter, STRAT. That discussion has taken on a new dimension with the WikiLeaks scandal. Editors and journalists have at their fingertips access to information previously unavailable to them (or, at the very least, information once difficult to obtain). But there are a host of factors to consider when deciding whether or not to publish. For one, is it something the public needs to know? Is it unethical to share leaked information in the press when average readers could access the information on their home computers? Is national security an issue? Does the benefit to your readers outweigh the potential cost of dissemination?

(And, by the way, editors: Is it WikiLeaks or Wikileaks?)

Meredith Dias is senior editor of Editors Only and STRAT.

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