photo from Susan Lesch
A cheater falsely moves to get ahead; a leaker, well, it’s generally defined as an accident. Milk leaks; water leaks; gossip… leaks? As a world society, we now have access to almost any source of information we need or want. For those who are technologically astute, data can be uncovered through algorithms and source codes.
The press, generally considered a primary source of conventional news, has always ridden a fine line between public knowledge and confidentiality, but lately has been plagued by scandal and questionable motivations. Those within its foundations have breached into unchartered territory, testing the laws of privacy and domain. Consequently, with complete freedom and lack of regulation, two great outrages have recently come forth.
In 2006, WikiLeaks launched, a nonprofit guerilla press organization dedicated to providing news and information to the public at limited discretion. If they could access info, they released it, including an Afghan war diary containing 76,000 classified documents, and nearly 800 counts of private material on Guantanamo Bay. This ethically questionable unload led to worldwide outrage in April 2010, and the site’s tireless captain, Julian Assange, was arrested. The organization claims, nevertheless, it was using technology along with moral principles to publish “material of ethical, political and historical significance while keeping the identity of our sources anonymous, thus providing a universal way for the revealing of suppressed and censored injustices.”
Cheating? An act of public good? The real question is who’s at risk and who gains.
“I am a big fan of disclosure of any information where the greater public’s benefit of disclosure outweighs harm or potential harm caused by the information,” says Krista Chambers, journalist and project manager with JPD Studio, a creative media design firm with clients including Harris Publications, Real Simple, NYU and Columbia. “I feel the public has a right to know as much as possible, but not at the cost of security, safety or privacy of a victim or minor.”
More recently, Rupert Murdoch took a giant hit when the underhanded moves of his editorial team at News of the World were exposed. Though Murdoch denies having knowledge of the dealings, his staff hacked into private voicemails on multiple occasions, accessing messages of a 13-year-old murder victim, families of 9/11 victims and British soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Subsequently, in 2009, Murdoch’s son made a $1 million dollar deal to keep the situation under wraps, clearly admitting wrongdoing.
As Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, writes in The Daily Beast, “Everyone knows how WikiLeaks ended: a global swarm of revelations and headlines, with governments the world over transfixed by the daily drip-feed of disclosures, war logs, classified cables, and diplomatic indiscretions. Now, everyone knows how the Murdoch story ended: with a giant heave of revulsion at what his employees had been up to, and with a multibillion-dollar merger stopped in its tracks by the most overwhelming parliamentary vote anyone can remember… Except the Murdoch story isn’t finished… There will be two public inquiries—into the behavior of press and police.”
These two scandals present an interesting debate to the guiding principles of press. Citizen journalism has become almost as powerful and prevalent as legitimate publication, and it’s no holds barred. The more libertarian end of the scale insists the public should know what’s going on; they demand the undeniable right to understand how those who are making decisions put facts and figure together. The other end contends, if we break down the wall, we lose our shield and our defense.
“I believe some of the information in its purest form was of public interest, but Assange’s motives, and some content alterations, undermine the WikiLeaks message,” comments Chambers. “Do I think there was information the public had a right to know about? Yes. I’m glad there are people out there fighting to get information about the war into the public sphere. Do I think he was wrong? In some ways, also yes. The press exists to inform the public about news that is pertinent to them. When it comes at the cost of national security and is driven by motivations beyond the pure desire to inform the public with untainted information, it’s dangerous.”
That said, the task of regulating such a wide scope of constant information seems nearly impossible.
Adds Chambers, “There’s a disconnect in our digital age about what we actually have rights to versus what we think we should be able to access. When everything is available all the time, we lose sense of property rights; especially intellectual property…Laws can be difficult to enforce, but perhaps revisiting intellectual property laws is a necessary thing.”