Will Wikileaks Revolutionize Journalism?

I’ve been keeping my eye on Wikileaks over the past few months, as a potential source of eyewitness footage and contextual documentation for news stories that we’ve covered on NowPublic.

Although the site maintains some similarities to Wikipedia, the community-edited, online encyclopedia, Wikileaks bills itself, first and foremost, as an “international transparency network” that exists to allow documents to be leaked anonymously and made available for public analysis. In principle, the site’s express purpose is to bring to light global injustices and to bring attention to oppressive regimes around the world.

The site offers secure, encrypted methods for documents to be posted to the site anonymously and untraceably and the Wikileaks organization itself is comprised of a group of editors, journalists, programmers, and advisors, who are effectively unknown to one another.

All of this makes for a unique online space wherein allegedly leaked documents or information can be freely shared, distributed, and subjected to the collective review and analysis of the site’s editorial team and Wikileaks’ online community. Nevertheless, many journalists are approaching the site with a requisite amount of skepticism, given its ‘open source’ mandate and necessary questions around the authenticity and reliability of information disclosed through its platform.

What’s your take on Wikileaks? Can and should its model of ‘collective wisdom’ be trusted as a reliable source of news and information? What place do such documents and disclosures have in our contemporary media landscape?

Encouraging & protecting whistleblowers

If you’re not familiar with Wikileaks, you should be because, since it debuted last year, the international transparency network behind the site has forced governments and news media to take notice, most recently with the posting of whistleblower documents that indicate “thousands of sterilizations, and possibly some abortions, took place in 23 Texas Catholic hospitals from 2000 to 2003,” as reported by the Catholic News Service in the wake of the leak.

Exposing oppressive regimes

Wikileaks describes itself as a site that’s “developing an uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis. Our primary interest is in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations. We aim for maximum political impact.”

Besides having been briefly banned by a judge in the U.S. (the site appears to be based in Sweden), the anonymous founders are international computer geeks who know how to hide in cyberspace and get around things like the Great Firewall of the government in China. In fact, Wired magazine notes that one of Wikileaks’ advisers, security expert Ben Laurie, “doesn’t even know who runs the site — other than (co-founder Julian) Assange (who lives in Kenya) — or where the servers are.”

Wikileaks as a news site

What makes Wikileaks a unique “news” site is that instead of “breaking stories,” it publishes leaked documents, now boasting “over 1.2 million documents … from dissident communities and anonymous sources.”

An early criticism of Wikileaks was its posting of anonymously leaked documents without running it through an editing process and without providing any context — something that many industry insiders (and military brass), including prominent open government advocates like Steve Aftergood, view as “irresponsible,” at best.

While Wikileaks Web masters seem immune from government and press criticism, they’re not unresponsive, having changed the site a bit since it first hit the net in January 2007. The home page now features analysis of recently leaked documents, as well as “fresh leaks requiring analysis.”

The site also notes: “Wikileaks is not like Wikipedia. Every submitted article and change is reviewed by our editorial team of professional journalists and anti-corruption analysts. Articles that are not of high standard are rejected and non-editorial articles are fully attributed.”

Authenticity and Document Analysis

“Wikileaks believes that the best way to determine if a document is authentic is to open it up for analysis to the broader community — and particularly the community of interest around the document.”

“So for example, let’s say a Wikileaks document reveals human rights abuses and it is purportedly from a regional Chinese government. Some of the best people to analyze the document’s veracity are the local dissident community, human rights groups and regional experts (such as academics). They may be particularly interested in this sort of document. But of course Wikileaks will be open for anyone to comment.”

“Journalists and governments are often duped by forged documents. It is hard for most reporters to outsmart the skill of intelligence agency frauds. Wikileaks, by bringing the collective wisdoms and experiences of thousands to politically important documents, will unmask frauds like never before.”

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