Journalism, Risk and the Media: The Case of WikiLeaks

Much has already been blogged about WikiLeaks and I imagine a good few academic papers are already underway. On the topic, John Naughton’s blog has been a  great source for thoughtful memes, not to mention Aaron Bady’s work which went viral. Meanwhile, recent posts by both Charlie Beckett and Emily Bell have encouraged me to think about the case of WikiLeaks from the perspective of journalism, risk and the media.

Actually, the connection was more serendipitous as I have been working with a colleague and friend on a larger research project where we are currently starting to delve further into the literature on risk and particularly the work on Beck and Giddens. While reading this literature the parallels with WikiLeaks struck me.  While I intend to develop this idea further, and really must read wider (so I welcome comments) on the matter, it seems to me that WikiLeaks epitomises the ‘risk society’ that both Beck and Giddens write of. However, the case also illustrates how their theories must be pushed further.

I would argue that the theories need to be elaborated upon in two ways. First, by positioning ‘information’ as a global ‘risk’. While Beck does hint at some statements to this effect (see below) much of the discourse is specific to larger environmental threats.  Second, I would argue that WikiLeaks shows how the media’s reporting of events could, at least theoretically, put the media at risk. The latter point, which is thus far unaddressed in the literature, could be a partial explanation for the ‘crisis in journalism’ identified by Emily Bell.

WikiLeaks – Information as a ‘risk’ in the ‘risk society’

Making the case for WikiLeaks first requires a brief dip into the concept of risk. While much has been written on it, in Beck’s original thesis, risk is defined as, ‘a systematic way of dealing with the hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernization itself’ (Beck 1992: 21). Here, the ‘hazards’ Beck refers to are the large scale environmental threats such as radioactivity but he, and others, have extended the concept to include other threats such as climate change, GMO, BSE , terrorism and global disasters.

In a risk society, society and its institutions, reorganise themselves to try and anticipate and manage risk.  Decisions are made on the basis of how such actions may or may not impact future events; organisations are ‘self-limiting’ acting to reduce and avoid risk (Beck 1992: 42). A fundamental characteristic of the risk society is the end of the ‘monopoly on rationality’ held by experts (scientists) whereby risk is now but is contested and debated over as opposed to identified by experts.  This, for Beck, is where the media come in. The media are largely theorised as providing an arena for the definition and contestation of risk; media make risks visible. Restated, the media become sites where large scale hazards such as nuclear power or pressing issues such as climate change are discussed and interested parties struggle with and through the media to define the problem (risk) and the solution.

While implicit in much of Beck’s discussion, ‘information’ is not conceptualised as a risk but as something that is to be struggled over in relation to a specific discourse such as climate change.  A lucid example of this perspective is Beck’s almost prophetic remark that

power struggles over the distribution and the distribution coefficient of information flows will become an important source of conflict.’ (1992: 218).

In the case of WikiLeaks, the power struggle was indeed over the very distribution of information. The information flow – with its multiple mirror sites and rogue torrents  –  arguably resembles Castells’ ‘network society’ and the very act of release and distribution an act of ‘counter power’. Returning to information, States have always been vulnerable to information leaks; thus information has always been a risk. So, what is new? When the internet was barely the Arpanet and when Todd Gitlin was still a radical, war-architect turned whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg – with the help of others including Noam Chomsky – released what became known as the ‘Pentagon Papers’ – a damming dossier on the US war on Vietnam. Not only is the release of the ‘Pentagon Papers’ impressive for their content, but also given the rather ‘time-bound’ approach of meticulously photocopying multiple copies of the 7,000 page documents when compared to the ‘space-bound’ approach of dumping 280,000 files onto a flash drive. Of interest, if Daniel Ellsberg were to release the ‘Pentagon Files’ today as a PDF, they would be no larger than 10meg file and, in fact, are now available as PDF files.

The ‘Pentagon Papers’ were released by a real insider, in a tight-knit circle where not only access to the information, but the ability to manually photocopy 7000 pages of text, was tightly controlled and restricted. The information from Cablegate however was available to hundreds of thousands of people and arguably wasn’t even that classified. The very ease of access to information is part of what makes information a risk. Related to this, is the relative ease in the digital age that such information may be copied and distributed. Just think of the hours it would have taken to either print or photocopy 280,000 diplomatic cables? The sheer volume of the ‘data dump’ has led some critiques to claim that WikiLeaks is not a journalistic organization. I would say that the sheer volume represents the ‘risk’ of information in the information age while the skilled and selective way in which the information has been released establishes WikiLeaks as a media outlet.

The release of the WikiLeaks cables and subsequent reporting by mainstream media has amplified the visibility of the ‘backstage’ and ‘backroom’ dealings visible of powerful national governments and power hungry corporations. Arguably, the response of various organisations to WikiLeaks and the United States in particular, has made the power hinted at in the diplomatic cables all the more visible [and perhaps this was part of the WikiLeaks master plan?]. From what was/is effectively a cyber war launched on the WikiLeaks sites, to the ‘economic war’ by way of informal, perhaps formal, or even simply self-serving, economic pressure applied to WikiLeaks’ funding channels and technological infrastructure show the ongoing power of the nation state and what Clay Shirky emphasizes as the extrajudicial lengths countries will undertake in the name of self-preservation.

What is slightly different in the case of WikiLeaks from Beck’s initial take on risk is that while Beck’s theory has often been applied to specific issues which then are the risks debated such as climate change, in this case the information covers multiple issues. Salon has an excellent overview of ‘What WikiLeaks revealed to the world in 2010’.

Sure, the U.S. serves as the central hub in these cases but the risk here is the information itself.  The point is, is that information is often recognised as a component of risk in Beck’s work but not as a risk itself.  However, given the vast array of actors covered in the WikiLeaks cables this puts ‘information’ as significant risk in the risk or even information society. Beck’s ‘reflexive modernization’ is also interesting in the case of WikiLeaks as the term  is mean to capture the ways in which certain risks can come back and hit you.  To be fair, what Beck lacks here however, Giddens, in his Consequences of Modernity, identifies the control of information and social supervision as one of the, ‘four basic institutional dimensions of modernity’ yet from a quick reading of it information is not explicitly discussed as a risk (though it is obviously implicitly through a lack of control etc).

Of course here then, the implications for power creep back up. Some have argued that WikiLeaks have made states aware of this risk and it may lead to a repressive turn by nation states. However, as Aaron Bady, eloquently argues this runs counter to the aspirations Assange has for WikiLeaks.  Parallels between Beck’s ‘risk society’ and WikiLeaks could also easily be extended into the realm terrorism and information terrorism. Assange has already been labeled or at least inferred as a  terrorist or ‘high tech terrorist’ by many US politicians including US Vice President Joe Biden. So there is obviously scope here to further develop the literature on ‘risk’ that emerged in the wake of 9/11 in the context of an information war, cyberwar, information terrorist or what David Rieff of The Nation has called ‘The Cyberwars to Come’.

Media at ‘risk’ in the ‘risk society’?

A final point, and one that really should be developed more but I feel I have already broken the conventions of a blog post, is related to the underdeveloped role of media in Beck’s ‘risk’ thesis. Of note, this is something Beck himself not only acknowledges but challenges media scholars to pick up. In an interview published in Journalism Studies , Beck notes,

‘The perspective of media as actors in the second modernity is underdeveloped. I have to admit that this focus is underdeveloped in my own analysis and the concept of the risk society as well. Actually, I am still waiting for somebody to pick up the ball here’

This begs the question, what can WikiLeaks tell us about journalism and the media? Just as the scientist no longer has the monopoly on expertise, the traditional /old school / mainstream journalist, in an age of global communication, no longer has the monopoly on practicing journalism. Moreover, for Beck, the media organisation then engages in (and hosts) the debate over the risk which thereby works towards defining the territory of the risk. However, the media organisation is more than a platform for debating risk, it is also a source of risk. Two things are of note here.

First, this may be contingent on how we define a media organisation? Is WikiLeaks a media organisation? As Charlie Beckett argues. Yet even if we say WikiLeaks is not a (traditional) media outlet or even publisher, questions have been raised as to why media/journalists have not generally been supportive of WikiLeaks. In fact, Newsweek asks this question in a recent article.

I think Emily Bell hits the nail on the head in arguing that ‘many, if not all, news organisations are uneasy with either the philosophy or the required skills of performing the same function as WikiLeaks’. I think this point could be interrogated further in the case of WikiLeaks by taking a risk society perspective. More generally, given the global media environment and pressures media organisations are facing, it would be fascinating to consider how the practice of journalism is both enabled and constrained based on their orientation to the risk society. Obviously the ‘classics’ in the sociology of news along with those with a political-economic perspective are already well aware of the structural limitations on the reporting news which would likely argue that journalists have always been part of the establishment they report and we should expect nothing different in the case of WikiLeaks.  Nonetheless, the role of media and therefore journalism is something woefully underdeveloped in risk society literature. I think the ongoing case of WikiLeaks presents a fascinating opportunity to not only develop this perspective, but as a lens to try and understand the wider significance and undeniable importance of the WikiLeaks case.



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4 responses to “Journalism, Risk and the Media: The Case of WikiLeaks

  1. @carwinb

    Thank you. Very interesting read.

  2. Greetings Patrick, I looked for an email to send this privately but could not find one here or on your university page.

    My question relates to this paragraph:

    “Yet even if we say WikiLeaks is not a (traditional) media outlet, questions have been raised as to why WikiLeaks have not generally been supportive of WikiLeaks.”

    Should that read ” … questions have been raised as to why journalists/media have not generally been supportive of Wikileaks … ” ?

    Fascinating read, even if much of it goes over my head.

  3. jim

    Am writing a thesis on Public Trust in WikiLeaks, the Media and the Government and need to know what your opinions are. The online survey is multiple choice and will take approximately 10 minutes to complete. Please follow the link:

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