Wikileaks May Have Just Changed the Media, Too

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The website Wikileaks has published more than 90,000 leaked U.S. military records about the war in Afghanistan. Marc Ambinder has a lot more about the content of the classified archive, but there's another fascinating aspect to the story: Wikileaks gave the New York Times, Guardian, and Der Spiegel access to the archive several weeks ago.

The rogue, rather mysterious website provided the raw data; the newspapers provided the context, corroboration, analysis, and distribution.


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"Wikileaks was not involved in the news organizations' research, reporting, analysis and writing," Times editors said in an online note. "The Times spent about a month mining the data for disclosures and patterns, verifying and cross-checking with other information sources, and preparing the articles that are published today."

While the impact of the documents and newspaper reportage on the war in Afghanistan will take a while to suss out, the publication of these documents will be seen as a milestone in the new news ecosystem.

Unlike the Pentagon Papers situation, we're "watching the traces of a major story unfold in real time," said C.W. Anderson, who studies media culture at CUNY. "If you're a PhD student or comm / journalism researcher who wants to study how news diffuses in 2010, here's your case study," he tweeted.

This story -- and the organization behind it -- is obviously singular. It's being described as one of the largest leaks in U.S. military history. (Though it's worth noting that the value of the information is not totally clear yet.) But it also fits into a broader trend. Traditional media organizations are increasingly reaching out to different kinds of smaller outfits for help compiling data and conducting investigations. NPR is partnering with several journalism startups to deliver their information out to a larger audience. The Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University broke a large story on renewable energy in association with ABC's World News Tonight. ProPublica's 32 full-time investigative reporters offer their stories exclusively to a traditional media player.

New conduits have opened into the most highly regarded newsrooms in the country; while that's probably a good thing, it adds a layer of complexity to a story like this. While ProPublica and others are certainly journalism outfits, Wikileaks is neither here nor there. The video that caused their last news splash -- "Collateral Murder" -- seemed like an attempt at an editorial. The group was harshly criticized in many quarters.

This time, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange told the New York Times that "some 15,000 documents would be withheld from release for a few days until Wikileaks could redact names of individuals in the reports whose safety could be jeopardized."

The New York Times' David Carr may have nailed the issue when he tweeted that it was the "asymmetries" that Wikileaks introduces into the equation that have the government spooked. An administration official told Politico, ""[I]t's worth noting that Wikileaks is not an objective news outlet but rather an organization that opposes U.S. policy in Afghanistan." But the truth is that we don't really know what Wikileaks is, or what the organization's ethics are, or why they've become such a stunningly good conduit of classified information.

In the new asymmetrical journalism, it's not clear who is on what side or what the rules of engagement actually are. But the reason Wikileaks may have just changed the media is that we found out that it doesn't really matter. Their data is good, and that's what counts.

UPDATE 7:16 AM: NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen calls WikiLeaks the first "stateless news organization" in an excellent post on this episode."In media history up to now, the press is free to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the laws of a given nation protect it," Rosen writes. "But Wikileaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new." [Emphasis added]

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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