“It could become as important a journalistic tool as the Freedom of Information Act,” Time magazine wrote about WikiLeaks back in 2007, two months before it revealed itself on the world wide web.
But WikiLeaks seems to have become far more potent than Time could have ever imagined.
This week, the website that “publishes leaked documents alleging government and corporate misconduct”, took its most audacious step yet by releasing over 90,000 secret US military documents concerning the war in Afghanistan.
Working in tandem with journalists from the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel, the documents reveal how the US military failed to disclose the alleged killing of civilians, that the US-funded Pakistan has been giving covert support to the Taliban and that the Taliban has acquired access to surface-to-air materials.
It’s being reported as the biggest leak in US military history, and it would only be possible with the power and anonymity offered by the internet. So will this change how open governments and other organisations are to the general public?
Well, it’s unlikely. The leak has received vociferous condemnation from the US and UK militaries, as well as some sections of the British press – both the Sun and Daily Mail websites reported the story from the angered perspective of the British government.
But regardless of the repercussions the leak has on the war effort in Afghanistan – war commentary is not Media Digest’s strong point – it is steadily becoming clear that WikiLeaks is changing the way the media ingests information, and the way the public are consuming it. As Alexis Madrigal states on his blog for the Atlantic:
“The rogue, rather mysterious website provided the raw data; the newspapers provided the context, corroboration, analysis, and distribution… the publication of these documents will be seen as a milestone in the new news ecosystem.”
NYU Journalism professor Jay Rosen also used his blog to express just how much of a shift the Afghanistan leak will have on the media:
“In media history up to now, the press is free to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the laws of a given nation protect it. But WikiLeaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the internet permits it. This is new.”
Among the maelstrom of all this, it’s hard to decipher the importance of the actual information. Questions have already been asked of the reliability and truth behind both the information and the sources that supplied it.
But one thing is becoming increasingly clear – traditional sources of information, such as the Freedom of Information Act mentioned above, are to become less potent when there is an outlet for whistleblowers to release sensitive intelligence confidentially. Journalists are unlikely to go through the rigmarole of asking for information when they are offered it on a plate.
However, what they must not forget to ask is the questions that challenge the information released, otherwise the same anonymity that makes WikiLeaks such a haven for those wishing to call governments to account, could too easily turn into a weapon to use against anyone.
How this develops, old media will decide.