A Minute With...

investigative journalism expert Brant Houston

7/29/2010  1:00 pm

Three major news outlets recently published extensive accounts on tens of thousands of secret U.S. military reports on the war in Afghanistan, made public by WikiLeaks, an online site dedicated to unearthing classified government and private corporate documents. Brant Houston is the Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois and the coordinator of the Global Investigative Journalism Network. Houston was interviewed by News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

Does this story represent a watershed moment for journalism, and for investigative reporting in particular?

image of professor brant houstonI’m not sure this was a watershed moment.  But it was a significant event in demonstrating in a very big way how much the Internet has changed the rules of the game for traditional journalism. Traditional journalism had gotten use to controlling the spigot for information flow, but with the Internet those days are long gone.

In this case, WikiLeaks could decide on the publication date because it could post the documents on its own website any time it chose with no help or involvement from established newsrooms. Sharing the documents meant that WikiLeaks got others to do more fact-checking and give the documents a higher profile and more credibility.

As for the investigative reporting, it’s business as usual. You get a set of leaked documents, you independently determine how true and meaningful they are, you put them in context, and you use them as tips for further investigations.

Does an online site like WikiLeaks have an advantage over news organizations in accessing secret or private documents and making them public?

It has an advantage over newsrooms that are reluctant to deal with documents from anonymous sources or newsrooms that are perceived as part of the power structure by those who leak secret information. But otherwise WikiLeaks is like many other groups that have received secret documents and then shared them with newsrooms. Again, the biggest advantage is that with the Internet no one needs news organizations to widely distribute the documents.

What does this story show us about the role of newspapers and other “old media” in the Internet age?

The reassuring moment for “old media” is this episode showed the need for newsrooms that maintain high standards for reporting and that require checking out the truth of documents. You need people who take time to establish the credibility and context for new or previously secret information. In fact, that need has not diminished, but has become greater in an age where it‘s common to “post” first and ask questions later.

Comparisons have been made between this case and the release of a classified history of the Vietnam War, known as the Pentagon Papers, almost 40 years ago. How are they similar and how different?

In both cases, a large number of secret war documents were released. But the Pentagon Papers were a well-researched narrative history of unknown facts and decision-making in the Vietnam War. The researchers had access to a much higher level of secret documents and there were amazing revelations.

The WikiLeaks document release is raw material that needs to be checked out and analyzed before becoming part of a meaningful historical account.  So far the material has not delivered the same level of revelations. It has provided detail and backup for many issues that have been reported on, and given us a better overall sense of the complexities of this war.

Should we be concerned about any of WikiLeaks’ methods, or how far it and similar news gatherers might go in releasing sensitive or private documents?

We should always scrutinize the methods and motivations behind the release of secret documents and make sure the release doesn’t imperil citizens or troops. It is worrisome when you don’t know who is leaking the documents and why. But if we independently verify the information and find it serves a greater good, then it lessens the concern. And that’s the daily work of a good investigative journalist.

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