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WikiLeaks 2.0: Al Jazeera and the Future of Investigative Journalism

Published:  January 25, 2011

Irrespective of your personal feelings about WikiLeaks, the model it pioneered has challenged traditional journalism models and serves as a harbinger of change for 2011. WikiLeaks-esque tools supporting a new generation of whistleblowers are facilitating fundamental changes in the relationships among sources and journalists. These tools can disseminate exceedingly large amounts of information within remarkably short time frames and challenge journalists, who necessarily must utilize new technologies to vet, manage, source, and expose the needles in the haystack. Likewise, WikiLeaks forces those who harbor sensitive data to think differently about both information compartmentalization and how to address the leaks that will inevitably occur.

As these technologies evolve, new opportunities for technology-mediated journalism are dramatically increasing. Unfortunately, few journalists (and even fewer media outlets) have the technological savvy to take advantage of these new avenues for reporting. If we aspire to achieve a more open, transparent, and investigative Fourth Estate, increased resource-sharing and educational skills-sharing between geeks and (journalistic) gumshoes is desperately needed. Within this context, journalists, technologists, and researchers at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative (OTI) have been pioneering the next generation of journalism. Through OTI’s Media Policy Initiative and Native Public Media we are actively exploring both innovative models for 21st century reporting and the policies that will best sustain them. All of these changes are also happening during a time of unprecedented collaborations and that are driving new forms of participatory journalism.

Technology-mediated journalism should be a catalyst for reevaluating standard operating procedures that have grown increasingly out-of-touch with on-the-ground realities -- the hacker ethos that “information wants to be free” has increasingly come into conflict with modern journalistic notions of “propriety” in vetting sensitive information (e.g., embedding reporters in military units, or becoming cosy with government sources). If 2010 was the year WikiLeaks established itself as a challenge to the journalistic status quo, 2011 will be the year that larger, more well-established media outlets reevaluate their practices and respond.

It is widely accepted that authoritarian and dictatorial control, censorship, and anti-democratic practices go hand-in-hand with efforts to maintain centralized control over data and lockdown of important information. Al Jazeera announced its intention “to shine light on the dark government and corporate activities” by establishing a new Transparency Unit within the organization. The new online tools on the Unit’s website are both a place to search through the over 1,600 documents constituting the recently disclosed Palestine Papers and a secure drop box “to submit all forms of content for editorial review and, if merited, online broadcast and transmission on our English and Arabic-language broadcasts.”

Though the Transparency Unit’s IT framework is technologically similar to WikiLeaks, Al Jazeera is integrating their own analysis of the raw (leaked) data and generating long-form journalism stories to couple with the public release. This “journalism of depth”, as Al Jazeera’s Director General's, Wadah Khanfar describes it, represents an important evolution in the role of news outlets who are working to support openness and transparency. While we should expect reporting on such a wide release of official documents (in much the same way that the original WikiLeaks release of 250,000 documents was combed over by numerous media outlets), two key differences are the ability of any news outlet to leverage WikiLeaks-type infrastructure to produce traditional investigative reporting at a much lower costs than before, and the speed with which leaked information can be collected, analyzed, aggregated, and disseminated.

Recently OTI technologists were invited to meet with the Transparency Unit journalists and technologists to review the project's technical framework. OTI’s goals were to take a top down look at the initiative’s infrastructure and provide suggestions on how to support openness and transparency using open technologies, all while protecting whistleblowers’ privacy. Specifically, OTI focused on protecting the integrity of submitted information while ensuring proper separation and safeguards between the Transparency Unit’s public-facing infrastructure and Al Jazeera’s general IT networks. As more global media outlets begin to focus on this intersection of technology and journalism, OTI will continue to work with these new projects to assist with their technical due diligence.

Like any powerful tool the technologies used by WikiLeaks and Al Jazeera create a Faustian bargain. Along with all the benefits that sunlight provides, there is also a darker side that must be addressed. A lack of institutional privacy may lead to practices where less and less sensitive information is documented, thus undermining transparency and accountability. Within today’s “publish or die” media, one can imagine a near-future where whistleblowers, rather than working for weeks or months with a single news outlet, deliver massive quantities of data to numerous outlets who then strive to be the first to publish. Within such an environment, careful vetting of information will increasingly take a back seat to expediency, laying the foundation for potentially explosive situations where the public identification and naming of malefactors and innocents alike becomes normative.

For WikiLeaks, the writing may already be on the wall -- it has a direct competitor in OpenLeaks, and the critical innovation that defined its success -- a digital dropbox -- has already been copied by one leading media broadcaster. And while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, the continuing importance of any single whistleblower website will diminish as multiple WikiLeaks-esque platforms are developed. In the interim, we should applaud the new-found power and protections afforded whistleblowers by these new technologies, but must also go forward knowing the advantages and disadvantages of a world where radical transparency happens irregardless of the sensitivity or repercussions of the information disclosed.

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