Sunday, 1 April 2012

Is Assange a journalist?

He says it in Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography (2011) repeatedly, that he's a journalist and that WikiLeaks is a media organisation. And he said it again a few days ago when he was interviewed for the ABC's evening Radio National, during which interview there was a degree of animosity on the part of the interviewer when Assange said, again, that WikiLeaks is a media organisation. The interviewer seemed to bridle, and it's in that reaction that I find the motivation for this post. Is Assange a journalist? Is WikiLeaks a media organisation?

You don't need to look hard to find evidence of editorial judgement, although WikiLeaks says it guarantees people who submit information that said information will be published promptly. And there's plenty of evidence that material is edited prior to release. The amount of work that's documented by Assange and others in the organisation is obvious. Preparing documents for release involves redacting information that might lead to any person mentioned in the documents receiving unwanted attention. "Unwanted attention" means, of course, in this case, a threat to their life. And preparing the Collateral Murder video for release involved adding subtitles, cleaning up the sound quality, and other things besides that made the item as strong as possible for viewers. So there's plenty of evidence that people involved in WikiLeaks perform editorial work on material they receive.

Then the material is published online. Publishing is what media organisations do. WikiLeaks also works with "journalists from other media organisations", they would claim, such as the Guardian and the New York Times. Assange said in the recent radio program I mentioned that WikiLeaks works with many fine journalists from around the world. But publishing organisations do not receive the same level of protection from prosecution as do media organisations.

When material is published, WikiLeaks always prepares an introductory web page describing what is in the release and offering readers some measure of interpretation so that they can quickly begin to read the material profitably. This introduction constitutes journalism in that it is editorial content that contains the aggregate knowledge of a person, and in that it is written for clarity  and ease of access. But compared to the large volumes of information WikiLeaks releases contains, it is a minimal effort.

As a journalist myself I at least wonder whether what Assange does can be described as journalism. He certainly provides leadership even if he doesn't write much. Journalists are basically people who know how to write and who write non-fiction in a way that facilitates, to the greatest degree, access by ordinary people to the material they are convering. It might be better to label WikiLeaks a publisher and Assange the chief editor.

What WikiLeaks does is so unusual and unprecendented it's no wonder that finding labels has turned out to be such a fraught business. In a sense WikiLeaks is an information broker. Not only that, but it relies on new technologies to facilitate the involvement of whistleblowers. The drop box WikiLeaks uses, that guarantees anonymity, is novel. When asked about his sources during the Radio National program Assange went quiet. Like a journalist would. A journalist must protect her sources for the same reasons WikiLeaks must: without this measure your operation fails because nobody will trust you any more.


Jaraparilla said...

WLF? WikiLeaks and Assange have won a WALKLEY award and many others for journalism! It's not debate-able. This is c21st journalism at its best.

Matthew da Silva said...

As a journalist myself it's my job to ask questions. If there's an award given I still need to be satisfied of whether it is appropriate, rather than take others' point of view as the truth.