Journalists Aren't the Big Fans of Leaks that They Used to Be

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Compared to ten years ago, today's journalists believe exposing government hypocrisy is more important than ever. Yet, they are less approving of the use of confidential documents to expose that hypocrisy, according to a study from Indiana University School of Journalism [PDF]. 

That aversion to revealing unauthorized secrets is just one of the many intriguing conclusions from the online survey of more than 1,000 journalists who work across print, digital news, TV, and radio. The survey dates back more than 40 years, asking journalists a series of questions in 1971, 1982, 1992, 2002, and 2013, giving a good overview of the trends in the journalism culture and business.

One of the most surprising developments over the past ten years is the steep decline in the percentage of journalists who say that using confidential documents without permission "may be justified." That number has plummeted from about 78 percent in 2002 to just 58 percent in 2013. In 1992, it was over 80 percent.

That's even more notable given that the survey took place from August to December of last year, not long after Edward Snowden became a household name for stealing classified documents that revealed the extent of NSA surveillance. The journalists who worked with him to share that information with the public won the Pulitzer Prize last month.

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Plenty of changes in the world in the past ten years might explain this sweeping change in opinion, including the post-9/11 surveillance state and the rise of WikiLeaks, which is often credited (or accused?) of taking the responsibility for those documents out of the hands of journalists. The Obama Administration's unprecedented targeting of whistleblowers, too, likely has played a role in turning opinions against the use of secret documents. That lack of approval may have played a role in the many media hit pieces on Glenn Greenwald, for one. 

It's not just confidential documents, though; the study also found that journalists are more wary of what it calls "controversial" techniques, such as hidden microphones or falsifying your identity to get information. Approval of Gonzo-style muckraking is way, way down in general.

At the same time, though, 78 percent of journalists believe investigating government claims is "extremely important," up from 71 percent ten years ago and 67 percent the decade before that. It seems journalists still value exposing government hypocrisy, they just don't approve of the typical means of doing so.

There are other interesting nuggets in the survey as well. The Washington Post pointed out that four times as many journalists claim to be Democrats than Republicans, a fact several right-leaning sites have seized on as confirmation of the accepted liberal bias in media. In addition, the survey found stagnant rates of diversity in journalism. Minorities made up just eight percent of the journalist work-force in 1992, and that rate has remained steady. Today it is 8.5 percent, which for the survey is basically unchanged. The sampling error at the 95 percent confidence level for the survey is plus-or-minus three percent.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.