Today’s session on the implications of Wikileaks was exactly what more SXSW panels should be, but too often aren’t. This one featured an all-star cast of journalists up at the podium, each with a distinct and valuable “insider” angle on a subject that has heavy-duty implications for our world, our freedoms and ultimately our lives. One twitterer, @smydrad, completely nailed it by saying the session was like, “watching a polite UFC match in a journalistic octagon.” Yeah, baby! By comparison, the other panels just seemed far too cumbaya.
A few of the major themes that emerged, and there were many:
1. The sheer volume of data presented by a Wikileaks (or any other source) is a massive issue, because someone has to sift through that massive info-dump for implications and meaning.
2. Newspapers and traditional reporting sources tend to be driven by news value of the information. They’re searching through it, picking and choosing what to report on and not. Is their bias toward newsworthiness the right filter for the public interest, or not?
3. The decisions of journalists what to publish or not are often strongly influenced by factors such as legal liability and requests by entities such as the government to hold off on a story (ostensibly to save lives, for example, or to not damage delicate international negotiations). But what do we think about that, when it means they may be burying some of the information? That’s not quite full transparency, is it?
4. Should we create some kind of multi-disciplinary panel to arbitrate these sorts of leaks? Trusted people who will dig through the dump on our behalf. If so, whose job should that be?
5. Unlike the U.K., the U.S. system protects journalists legally. So, is Assange a “journalist” by releasing the information dump he has? Yes, probably. But what is a journalist, then, exactly, in this world of citizen-journalists? And, more importantly, what laws or creeds should journalists abide by? “Do no harm,” perhaps? Is Assange doing that?
6. In a point raised by the legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, if someone to blow the whistle on something, that person currently has 2 choices: the press or their Congressperson (and the latter only in the U.S.). Frankly, both of these options have drawbacks. Do we need more viable options in order to protect our freedoms?
Whether you personally consider Assange to be a modern-day Robin Hood or an evil Lex Luthor type hell-bent on leveling world order with a big, fat Wiki-bomb, the whole situation demands a fundamental re-thinking of not just journalism, but how and from whom we consume content. If we’re going to be too passive or uninterested to sort through massive troves of potentially important information for ourselves, then who are we going to trust to do that for us? What are we entitled to know when? And what biases, prey tell, are we willing to live with in exchange for not getting our hands dirty?