Journalism Wants To Be Free

By now, surely everyone has heard, and seen, the Iraq video from Wikileaks. Of particular interest from the NYT article on the story, is this section:

By releasing such a graphic video, which a media organization had tried in vain to get through traditional channels, WikiLeaks has inserted itself in the national discussion about the role of journalism in the digital age. Where judges and plaintiffs could once stop or delay publication with a court order, WikiLeaks exists in a digital sphere in which information becomes instantly available.

“The most significant thing about the release of the Baghdad video is that several million more people are on the same page,” with knowledge of WikiLeaks, said Lisa Lynch, an assistant professor of journalism at Concordia University in Montreal, who recently published a paper about the site. “It is amazing that outside of the conventional channels of information something like this can happen.”

A big part of the Wikileaks story is they were able to decrypt the video, apparently using some borrow time on a high-powered computer system (one would be needed to break strong encryption; obviously, it could turn out the encryption used on this video was very weak). That’s not something CNN would likely be willing to do, let alone have the resources to spend on such an effort. But it’s the perfect sort of task for a site that falls outside the field of journalism — or, perhaps more precisely, a site that is redrawing its boundaries.

The question of just “what is journalism” has dogged journalists and academics since the rise of bloggers and “citizen journalists.” Wikileaks, though, seems to be a different sort of thing. Wikileaks isn’t a bunch of intrepid bloggers running through a FOIA data dump, and it’s certainly operating outside of what we’ve come to recognize as traditional journalism. The founder of Wikileaks, in fact, compares what the site does to something more like the CIA:

“That’s arguably what spy agencies do — high-tech investigative journalism,” Julian Assange, one of the site’s founders, said in an interview on Tuesday. “It’s time that the media upgraded its capabilities along those lines.”

One byproduct of the digitization of nearly everything these days is that information wants to be free. It should not be surprising that a video such as the one from Iraq, which is digitally captured and stored, could find its way in front of our eyes, just as the photographs from Abu Ghraib made their way onto our screens.

And it should not be surprising that a site such as Wikileaks would not only find a place in this new digitally-enhanced ecosystem of journalism and politics, but even thrive.

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