Julian Assange Arrest Illustrates Importance of Media Transparency
With the arrest of Julian Assange in Britain on April 10, his six-year stint at the Ecuadorian embassy in London finally came to an end.
Assange, of course, is the founder of WikiLeaks, and whatever one may think of him, his actions provide an interesting case study in terms of the role whistleblowers play, and to what degree their actions can be considered journalism.
Traditionally, whistle-blowers have worked with credible media organizations to release sensitive information that both parties agree is in the public interest. From the Pentagon Papers and the New York Times, to Watergate and the Washington Post, to Edward Snowden and The Guardian, whistleblowing has been an important part of journalism for decades.
What’s different about Wikileaks is that it is not a traditional media organization. Its raison d’etre is to post sensitive documents, or as it says on the website “provide analysis and publication of large datasets of censored or otherwise restricted official materials involving war, spying, and corruption.”
But even though Wikileaks refers to itself as a “multi-national media organization”, should they really be considered journalists?
The distinction is an important one. For instance, the Obama administration didn’t feel it could prosecute Wikileaks since it anticipated the organization would argue its actions related to the 2016 elections were acts of journalism. An April 10, 2019, report in the Washington Post put it this way:
“President Barack Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, never tried to prosecute WikiLeaks out of concern that the group would defend its publication of government secrets as journalism.”
However, Wikileaks hasn’t always acted as a proper steward of information, as journalists should. As the New Yorker notes, in 2016, Wikileaks selectively released documents with a deliberate intent to cause harm and chaos:
“During the 2016 Presidential election, Assange and WikiLeaks repeatedly published information that was damaging to the Democratic Party and to Hillary Clinton, timing the releases for maximum political damage.”
By drawing out the release of the documents over a period of months, Wikileaks likely turned the affair into a greater issue than was warranted.
That’s why it is so important to have credible media involved in the handling of such leaks. As romantic as it may seem, the media has an important role to play in presenting such sensitive material in a responsible and impartial manner.
Unfortunately, the demand for click-bait headlines and declining fortunes of the media industry as a whole means that there are fewer legitimate journalists willing to make the hard call to not release certain information, or at least take the time to assess it and report on it responsibly.
The damage from unscrupulous reporting is not limited to politics. Recall the New York Post publishing photos of two young men who were supposedly the lead suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings, even though they had no involvement in the crime. Or Fox News giving credence to an internet conspiracy theory about the death of young Democratic aide, Seth Rich, through reports it later retracted. In Canada, a young reporter named Jaren Kerr from the website Canadaland, caused great harm to the international charitable organization WE Charity due to Kerr’s disproven accusations of the charity promoting child labor.
Absent in these instances, as with Wikileaks, was proper fact-checking and journalistic scrutiny that is present in credible organizations.
Information provided by whistleblowers has the power to educate, enlighten and advance society. But in the wrong hands, it also has the power to do great harm.
Whatever happens to Assange and Wikileaks, it’s important to remember that there is still value in sound reporting from credible sources. In the era of “fake news,” maybe that value is greater than it’s ever been.
Dr. David Gonzalez is an assistant professor of public administration and organizational leadership with Brandman University’s School of Business & Professional Studies.