WikiLeaks dumps cast journalistic care to the winds

Thursday, September 1, 2011

News reports that WikiLeaks is more aggressively releasing diplomatic cables without redacting the names of informants and others raises the stakes for government and the news media.

WikiLeaks has worked collaboratively with some news organizations in the past, but now expresses frustration that there’s not as much coverage of its leaks. That seems to be translating into greater volume and less care. WikiLeaks claims the distribution of unredacted cables was the result of a security breach, but that’s no comfort to those who sought anonymity.

Ethical American news organizations have long had restrictions on whom they identify in news stories. For example, rape victims and juvenile offenders are almost never named because of concern that disclosing their names would cause harm disproportionate to the value of identifying them. The theory is that rape victims would be less likely to report the crime and that juvenile offenders would be less likely to be rehabilitated as they grow into adulthood.

The WikiLeaks disclosures are identifying individuals who cooperated with governments with the promise that their identities would never be known. That raises the question of whether these individuals will be placed in harm’s way by these leaks.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics includes the admonition that journalists should “minimize harm.” Among other standards, it says that journalists should:

  • “Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage.”
  • “Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.”

Major news organizations with access to the WikiLeaks cables, including The New York Times, have redacted the identities of individuals named in leaked cables in the past, and presumably will continue to do so.

There will always be those who will indiscriminately post or distribute information. The test for journalism professionals is to assess that material independently, apply journalistic ethical standards, and publish news and information that informs the public and does not do unnecessary harm.

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