Wikileaks and what they mean for journalism

The Wikileaks release of the Afghan war logs has unleashed a hail of commentary ranging from learned treatises on deciphering military jargon, through the morality of war to the implications for media and democracy. This post deals with what we’ve learnt about journalism. So far.

1. The unforeseen effects of quantity. Stories which begin with huge caches of data may begin with a bang (if the data is shown to mainstream media in advance, as here) but however they start, they will go on for a long time. A long tail of fresh stories will be fed by discoveries which can only, in the nature of the source material, be made slowly. The pace of the reporting changes; the sources of discoveries will be varied. We can see what one writer neatly termed the “sheer weight of failure” but we can’t see many detailed patterns until more work is done.

The estimates of what percentage of the logs have been trawled by whom vary. Two per cent? Five? Wikileaks said that documents had been witheld to protect individuals at risk. Did that mean that Wikileakers had been through 100% of the total? The Times this morning carried a story (can only be seen with payment) saying the raw documents did put Afghans at risk and suggesting that the screening was less than complete.

But whatever the exact extent of anyone’s knowledge, every conclusion about this is provisional  (and that includes my judgement in the post immediately below this on the Pentagon Papers comparison).

2. Data isn’t a nerd monopoly any more. Until this week, you needed to speak geek to get into “data journalism.” Not any more; making sense of mounds of data just went mainstream. The ability to search, seek patterns, to visualise, to find the “diamonds in the trashcan”, to distill inchoate masses of data into useful sense will now be at a premium and those skills in growing demand. An example of what can be done from the admirable Paul Bradshaw’s Online Journalism Blog here.

3. Collaboration/mutualisation. The war logs were an unusual cooperation between Wikileaks, the New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel. Wikileaks’ Julian Assange had noticed, he said, that simply dumping large amounts of leaked data into the public domain on the web didn’t always draw the attention it deserved. So he turned to mainstream outlets. Some views here on this from Jeff Jarvis and here from  C W Anderson. (Update 30/7/10: some detail on the exact nature of cooperation between the various parties in this piece by the Columbia Journalism Review).

A few notable things about this new relationship.

a) What Wikileaks has done is to create a new class of sources: digitally-literate leakers and whistleblowers, further down the command structure than the usual sources but in charge of huge amounts of data. As Assange hinted when he appeared recently in London, Wikileaks has specialised and invested a lot of effort in “grooming” and protecting this new category of source, often over email.

b) In the pre-digital world, news media often gave the basic facts of the news and then tried to make sense of them. In the digital era, the balance between these two activities shifts radically towards sense-making. Disclosure may still be done by people who describe themselves as journalists, but it can and will be done by many other people as well. Update 29/7/10: Jack Shafer’s advice to Assange on leak publicity management.

c) You might say that anyone can now offer to make sense of revelations or of data. They can. But the consumers of news still seem to think that they trust the sense-making judgements of journalists. Journalism’s perceived value lies not so much in the transmission of facts as in selection, emphasis, analysis, context and such. Or so this week’s events seem to suggest.

Tomorrow, a post on Jay Rosen’s question about investigative journalism on his PressThink blog, which also elicited an interesting commentary from Rod Dreher.

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1 comment

  1. You are being too modest George – City Uni’s journalism school is setting the pace in data journalism in the UK. I’ve taught a module there for at least three years via Rosie Waterhouse’s Investigative Journalism course. Next year I’ll be be doing it in collaboration with James Ball, a former City graduate.

    Data analysis is a skill that’s been in increasing demand in journalism and former students have found having these skills has given them the edge when interviewing for news positions.