Decency and Disclosure: The Ethics of Wikileaks

by Matthew L. Schafer

WikiLeaks’ systematic release of classified United States’ diplomatic cables raises a myriad of questions.  One of those questions is whether or not WikiLeaks endeavor towards “crack[ing] the world open” is ethical.  There are no easy answers to the ethical questions posed by WikiLeaks.

What are ethics?  According to Merriam-Webster, ethics are “the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group.”  As such, many organizations have a “Code of Ethics” or something similar to act as a compass when the organization is presented with an ethical quandary.

The touchstone of journalistic ethics comes from the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ).  SPJ’s Code of Ethics rests on four pillars: Seek the truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable.  Few would question whether WikiLeaks is seeking the truth or acting independently; the real questions are whether WikiLeaks is minimizing potential harm and whether it is an accountable organization.

Indeed, many have decried WikiLeaks for “data-dumping” without restraint or thought of the consequences.  (Some have even called for censorship.)  Others have argued that WikiLeaks cannot continue without being held accountable by someone or something.  Nonetheless, there are supporters lining up on WikiLeaks’ side, defending both the site’s right to be free from censors, and the site’s founder, Julian Assange.

While the WikiLeaks’ controversy has brought censorship to the forefront, it is not new to the United States or journalism.  Indeed, Benjamin Franklin’s brother, James, was once forced to publish beyond the reach of censors.   Today, reporters will often not publish material for fear of receiving flak from official sources.  This leads to (and always has to some degree) self-censorship.  This, however, is not always bad.

“Self-censorship… is based on context, careful calibration of circumstances with the public’s right to know always paramount,” Clifford Christians, Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois, said.  “There is always accountability of whom and why the decisions were being made.”

Christians, who has been teaching and lecturing on media ethics for over thirty years, went on to argue, “With Wikileaks there is no judgment, no context, no accountability.”  Indeed, Christians argued, there must be middle ground between WikiLeaks unbridled disclosure and absolute censorship.

Sissela Bok, a world-renowned philosopher and ethicist, argued in her book, “Secrets,” “The judgment expressed by whistleblowers concerns a problem that should matter to the public. Certain outrages are so blatant… that all who are in a position to warn of them have a prima facie obligation to do so.  Conversely, other problems are so minor that to blow the whistle would be a disproportionate response”

Thus, there are at least two ethical battles: One, between too much and too little, and another between carelessness and prudence.  The age-old battles become even more complex when they are inserted into the contemporary journalistic environment, which is being transformed by new technological tools like WikiLeaks.

Professor Lisa Lynch best captured the friction between traditional journalism, governed by rules attempting to resolve the questions above, and WikiLeaks, which is largely free from those rules.

“In a moment when investigative journalism is recognizably in crisis, Wikileaks has emerged as something of a strange bedfellow to a beleaguered industry, one that holds itself up as a champion of principles many journalists hold dear freedom of information and the sanctity of the source yet embeds these principles in a framework of cyberlibertarianism that is frequently at odds with the institutional ethics of journalists and editors,” Lynch wrote.

While there is an obvious tension between WikiLeaks and the traditional media, it is WikiLeaks–it appears–that is moving towards the code of ethics that guide journalists.  This is not to say that WikiLeaks has the editorial discretion of The New York Times, for example, but it seems to be exiting its adolescence (the organization is just four years old).  It seems to be coming to terms with the rules that govern the media, which it relies on for access to the public writ large.  (Publicity and exposure of WikiLeaks increased dramatically after it employed the help of traditional newspapers to spread its leaks.)

“So far, with only a few mistakes to date, the treatment of the cables by the media and by Wikileaks has been very responsible, incorporating governmental feedback on potential damage, redacting names of sources, and even withholding whole documents at the government’s request,” Tom Blanton, Director of the National Security Archives, recently said at a congressional hearing.

As of mid January, WikiLeaks has only released 2,000-3,000 cables out of the reported more than 250,000.  While many media outlets have failed to accurately report this important fact, it would seem to show that WikiLeaks is at least attempting to take care in releasing the documents.  Indeed, CNN found that WikiLeaks, in some instances, redacted more information than the Pentagon has.

WikiLeaks has the potential to radically transform–for the better–the way the public views the world it lives in.  To realize its fullest potential though, WikiLeaks must be as transparent as it wishes the rest of the world to be.  (Signs of an effort to be transparent.)   It must also attempt to work with the organizations that it reports on to minimize potential harms from its disclosures.  If WikiLeaks can rest on the pillars of minimizing harm and being accountable, the world will be more transparent and better off because of it.


About Matthew L. Schafer

Matthew L. Schafer graduated from the University of Illinois in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Media Studies. He later attended Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication where he earned a Masters of Mass Communication and Georgetown University Law Center where he earned his J.D.
This entry was posted in First Amendment, Media Policy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Decency and Disclosure: The Ethics of Wikileaks

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Decency and Disclosure: The Ethics of Wikileaks | Lippmann Would Roll --

  2. Pingback: Why most Wikileaks write-up is hypocritical « chaukeedaar's blog

  3. Taylor Dobbs says:

    Great post. Applying SPJ’s code of ethics really does a good job of holding WikiLeaks up to journalism and trying to figure out if they are one in the same or if they’re enemies.

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