WikiLeaks challenges news practices

As military officials, world leaders and politicians debate the impact of the release of  tens of thousands of raw classified field reports on the Afghan war, journalists and those who study the media are debating the impact of the release on the news business.

The records released were included in a classified archive obtained by an Internet organization named WikiLeaks, which provided early access to the The New York Times, the British newspaper the Guardian and the German magazine Der Spiegel so they could publish stories that provided context and analysis the same day the archives were published by WikiLeaks.

As media experts and commentators began discussing all this online they seemed to agree that this story may have changed the media.

“WikiLeaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new,” writes Jay Rosen, a professor at New York University and the author of the blog Press Think, who calls WikiLeaks “the world’s first stateless news organization.”

In his blog post he points out that WikiLeaks is organized so that if the crackdown comes in one country, the servers can be switched on in another, putting it beyond the reach of any government or legal system.

“If you’re a whistle blower with explosive documents, to whom would you rather give them? A newspaper with a terrestrial address organized under the laws of a nation that could try to force the reporter you contacted to reveal your name, and that may or may not run the documents you’ve delivered to them online…. or WikiLeaks, which has no address, answers no subpoenas and promises to run the full cache if they can be verified as real? (And they’re expert in encryption, too.)”

As well, he says, the decision by WikiLeaks to give advance access to the archives to three news organizatons was a very effective way to bring attention to the story.

“The information is released in two forms: vetted and narrated to gain old media cred, and released online in full text, Internet-style, which corrects for any timidity or blind spot the editors at Der Spiegel, The Times or the Guardian may show.”

What’s more, he says, journalists can’t resist an exclusive.

“Ask yourself: Why didn’t WikiLeaks just publish the Afghanistan war logs and let journalists ‘round the world have at them? Why hand them over to The New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel first? Because as Julien Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, explained last October, if a big story is available to everyone equally, journalists will pass on it. “It’s counterintuitive,” he said then. “You’d think the bigger and more important the document is, the more likely it will be reported on but that’s absolutely not true. It’s about supply and demand. Zero supply equals high demand, it has value. As soon as we release the material, the supply goes to infinity, so the perceived value goes to zero.”

In an article published at,  Dan Gillmor, a technology writer, blogger and author of We the Media, says that decision by WikiLeak’s Julian Assange to provide  three news organizations with an early look at the records is proof he’s incredibly media savvy. 

“When a few selected journalists at major institutions get it first, that’s how you create buzz. This says more about journalists’ competitive instincts and their Pavlovian response to “exclusives” than it does about their willingness to actually do their jobs for their audiences.”

He also warned about what might follow as a result of this story.

“If you think the rich and powerful people who run governments and corporate media aren’t working every day to turn back the clock on information they can’t control, you’re not paying attention. WikiLeaks may well have given them new ammunition for pushing the harshest kinds of restrictions. Do we want to be like Saudi Arabia and China? We may find out one of these days, sooner rather than later.”

At, senior editor and technology writer, Alexis Madrigal, agreed that the publication of these documents will be seen as “a milestone in the new news ecosystem.” In his column, he says the collaboration between WikiLeaks and news organizations fits a broader trend.

“Traditional media organizations are increasingly reaching out to different kinds of smaller outfits for help compiling data and conducting investigations.”

But he also included a warning about WikiLeaks. “The truth is that we don’t really know what WikiLeaks is, or what the organization’s ethics are, or why they’ve become such a stunningly good conduit of classified information.”

As another media commentator, C,W. Anderson, wrote: “The amazing thing about WikiLeaks is that it gets to play by multiple sets of rules.”  Anderson, an Assistant Professor of Media Culture at the College of Staten Island, wrote in a column at  that “What we’re seeing in the complex dance between WikiLeaks and the more traditional media is a dance between two informational cultures, one of hackers and one of reporters. Both cultures appear to need the other — The New York Times needs WikiLeaks, and WikiLeaks, it seems, needs the The New York Times. WikiLeaks seems to have figured this out, and that’s what makes it so powerful.”

And, taking a swipe at news organizations, like the New York Times, which are planning to introduce paywalls for access to their websites, The Globe and Mail‘s mobile editor, Matt Frehner @mattfrehnder,  waded into the debate with this tweet.

“I think that if I were a whistleblower, I would have no interest in taking my brown envelope to a media organization with a paywall.”