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December 21 2010

19:00

#NiemanLeaks big takeaway? Even post-WikiLeaks, context still key

The Nieman Foundation’s Secrecy and Journalism conference last week set out to tackle a lot of questions, but perhaps none were as big as the central one posed to attendees: What should journalism’s role be in this new environment of distributed leakers, massive databases, and citizen reporters.

The answer most of the panels seemed to reach, however, might be a comforting one: Provide the context and texture behind the data, while vetting sources for accuracy and agenda. Not too different from what journalist have always been supposed to do — but now the tools, sources, and audience have come together to allow for a much richer, deeper form of reporting than has ever been possible.

We’ve summed up and posted video and liveblogs from each of the conference sessions. But after sifting through it all, here are my five key takeaways from the discussion.

Data needs context

While Julian Assange initially relied on radical transparency as a tool to spur change, he quickly learned that crafting a narrative around the raw documents produced a much more dramatic result. Even The New York Times’ Bill Keller acknowledged WikiLeaks has “evolved.” The new leak revolution begins looking more and more like the old guard, even as it collaborates with them.

Beware secrecy’s hard liners

The U.S.’s classification system may or may not be broken, as CJR’s Clint Hendler suggested in one panel — but it definitely has quirks, shortcomings, and fallibilities. As Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, put it: “It’s important not to take too seriously what the government says is and isn’t classified. It’s a game.”

Vet, vet, vet

Whether dealing with Deep Throat, a whistleblower, or a shadowy international band of hackers, journalists need to look at their sources critically, questioning the source’s agenda as well as ensuring the material is authentic. As Keller noted, The New York Times has treated WikiLeaks as a source, not a partner. Just because the form of the source has changed doesn’t change the fundamental relationship. And as an added warning, note Walter Pincus’ admonition that almost all of the “new” sources that approach him are simply wrong.

WikiLeaks hasn’t (yet) established a new order

With technology — particularly technology under siege — distributed tends to win over centralized, and there are already new organizations popping up all over hoping to take WikiLeaks’ mantle. The more fundamental point, however, is that similar leaks have been driving much of journalism in the United States and around the world for decades — meaning there may be less new and different about WikiLeaks than there is familiar to any good investigative journalist.

The hard work is just beginning

Despite all the opportunities and changes occurring, the basic grunt work of investigative journalism is still boring, tedious, and, particularly at the local level, critical to serving as an effective watchdog for democracy.

17:00

At #Niemanleaks, a new generation of tools to manage floods of new data

Whether it’s 250,000 State Department cables or the massive spending databases on Recovery.gov, the trend in data has definitely become “more.” That presents journalists with a new problem: How do you understand and explain data when it comes by the gigabyte? At the Nieman Foundation’s one-day conference on secrecy and journalism, presenters from the New York Times, Sunlight Foundation, and more offered solutions — or at least new ways of thinking about the problems.

Think like a scientist

With the massive amounts of primary documents now available, journalists have new opportunities to bring their readers into their investigations — which can lead to better journalism. John Bohannon, a contributing correspondent for Science Magazine, said his background as a scientist was great preparation for investigative reporting. “The best kind of investigative journalism is like the best kind of science,” he said. “You as the investigator don’t ask your readers to take your claims at face value: You give them the evidence you’ve gathered along the way and ask them to look it with you.”

It’s not a radical idea, but it’s one being embraced in new ways. For Bohannon, it meant embedding with a unit in Afganistan and methodically gathering first-hand data about civilian deaths — a more direct and reliable indicator than the less expensive and safer method of counting media-reported deaths. He also found his scientific approach was met with more open answers from a military known for tight information control. “Sometimes if you politely ask for information, large powerful organizations will actually give it to you,” he said.

The future will be distributed: BitTorrent, not Napster

Two of the projects discussed, Basetrack and DocumentCloud, invite broader participation in the news process, the former in the sourcing and the latter with the distribution.

Basetrack, a Knight News Challenge winner, goes beyond the normal embedding process to more actively involving the Marines of First Battalion, Eighth Marine Regiment as they deploy overseas in reporting their experiences. Teru Kuwayama, who leads the project and deployed with the battalion to Afghanistan, said ensuring that confidential information wasn’t released, putting lives in danger, was essential to building trust and openness with the project. So Basetrack built a “Denial of Information” tool that allowed easy, pre-publication redactions, with the caveat that the fact of those redactions — and the reasons given for them — would be made public. It’s a compromise that promises a greater intimacy and a collaborative look at life at war while ensuring the safety of the soldiers.

Fellow News Challenge winner DocumentCloud, on the other hand, distributes the primary documents dug up through traditional investigative journalism, such as historical confidential informant files or flawed electoral ballot designs. Aron Pilhofer, editor of interactive news at The New York Times, said he was unsure about whether journalists would actually use it when his team began working on the project — but since then dozens of organizations have embraced it, happy to take readers along for the ride of the investigative process.

These new ways of distributing reporting were just the beginning, Pilhofer said, with a trend that will likely push today’s marquee whistleblower out of the limelight. “WikiLeaks was very much a funnel going in and very much a funnel going out,” he said. “Distributed is the future.” A new project, called OpenLeaks, will embrace a less centralized model, building technology to allow anonymous leaks without a central organization to be taken out.

Big data’s day is here

The panel also tackled how to digest truly massive data sets. Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, detailed how his organization collected information on everything from earmarks to political fundraising parties. Allison said making this data actually meaningful required context, which could be simple as mapping already available data or scoring government databases based on understandable criteria.

“We try to make the information easy to use,” he said. But beyond the audience of curious constituents who use Sunlight’s tools, a much broader audience is reached as hundreds of journalists around the country use Sunlight’s tools to dig up local stories they might not otherwise have noticed — creating a rippling effect of transparency

15:00

Tracking documents, numbers, and military social media: New tools for reporting in an age of swarming data

To conclude our series of videos from the Nieman Foundation’s secrecy and journalism conference, here’s a video of the day’s final session — the Labbiest of the bunch. Our own Megan Garber moderates a set of presentations on new digital approaches to dealing with new data and new sources.

The presenters: John Bohannon, contributing correspondent for Science Magazine; Teru Kuwayama, Knight News Challenge winner for Basetrack; Aron Pilhofer, editor of interactive news at The New York Times and Knight News Challenge winner for DocumentCloud; and Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation. Below is an embed of the session’s liveblog.

December 20 2010

18:00

In an age of free-flowing information, there’s still a role for journalists to provide context

The Washington Post’s venerable national security reporter Walter Pincus wants to make one thing clear: He isn’t just hopping on the WikiLeaks bandwagon.

“I used WikiLeaks before [it] became famous,” he said at last week’s secrecy in journalism conference at the Nieman Foundation. “[They] used to release one document at a time, which is the way I can handle it; I can’t handle 250,000 cables dumped in one day.” The massive amount of data now available, and the dearth of reporters tasked with examining it, was a recurring theme during the conference’s panel on gatekeepers and secrecy.

Pincus’ views on WikiLeaks largely echoed New York Times executive editor Bill Keller’s approach, which was to treat WikiLeaks and Julian Assange as any other source. But Pincus and other panelists went further, saying WikiLeaks was the effect and not the cause of a more distributed age, where information comes in many forms and the challenge for journalists is sorting through potential stories to find out what is meaningful, and then placing that meaning in context.

“Just having access to the information doesn’t mean we can understand it,” said Clint Hendler, a staff writer with the Columbia Journalism Review. “One of the key functions of a journalist used to be breaking that barrier of entry [of access]. But as the data is available [more widely], the other aspects of being a traditional journalists remain.” This means verifying the data, determining whether it’s important and contextualizing it.

Hendler said that this last role, of helping readers understand the information they’re given, was a task WikiLeaks originally held off from, preferring to be a pure conduit of raw information. That changed this past spring, when the organization released its video “Collateral Murder,” a leaked video which showed two Reuters news staff killed by a U.S. helicopters. This release, in addition to the editorializing title, included explanations of the ongoing attack as well as copies of the U.S. Rules of Engagement.

“Contrast this to what they could have done, and what they had largely done until that point: Just upload the video file,” Hendler said. “This video got a lot of attention because it was so graphic…but it also planted the seeds of a strategy in that these raw documents have a much greater impact when they’re put in context and with reporting.”

The shift has largely been overlooked as pundits debate whether WikiLeaks is “journalism,” but even Keller admitted that the organization has evolved toward journalism. That actually might be good news for traditional journalists, as even advocates for radical transparency realize that simply dumping data is rarely enough to provoke a response, particularly when there is an extreme glut of data to absorb.

Pincus said that would be true even without organizations like WikiLeaks. “There are an enormous number of public sources of information: court documents, public records that when I was young, I hate to say, we all used to read,” he said. Now, the sheer volume of information coming out of the federal government is almost impossible to track: He said when he started, there were two public hearings a day in Washington; now there are 40. “There is more news in Washington that is fit to print. My problem is, and Wikileaks highlights it, how much of it has actually been read?”

Fit to print

But beyond the sheer volume of data is the question of what is worth publishing and investigating. The panelists agreed that whether a document is marked “Secret” or not is a poor standard.

Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, often helps whistleblowers work through official government channels to correct problems before taking leaks to the public. Even then, however, the legal contortions the government uses to classify documents can take bizarre turns. She recounted one instance where she was brought to a secure room, asked a few questions, and given “temporary security clearance” to discuss some documents, clearance that was immediately revoked aftewards. “It’s important not to take too seriously what the government says is and isn’t classified,” she said. “It’s a game.”

Pincus said he had a four-part standard he used when deciding to publish information: Is it true? Is it relevant? Is there a way to give it to people? Is it something that I think the public ought to know?

He said ultimately it’s the best interest of the readers that should guide journalists, rather than relying on political pleas. “Our responsibility is to serve our readers,” he said. “We’re essentially not a national paper, we’re a local paper whose realm is national news because we’re based in Washington.”

The local connection

The emphasis on the local was shared by Maggie Mulvihill, founder and senior investigative producer at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. She said worked like NECIR’s, which focuses on public service journalism in the New England area, is particularly important since papers like The Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal are still keeping a spotlight on national institutions even as local watchdogs are disappearing.

“In Massachusetts, the last three Speakers of the House have been indicted,” she said. “When our leaders are up to no good, they need to know we are watching.”

16:00

Secrecy conference: In countries like Romania and Cambodia, illegal leaks can be transparency’s only hope

While, in the United States, WikiLeaks has caused a furor for its journalism-by-data-dump, similar leaks abroad are a major source of reporting on government operations — occasionally providing the only transparency available, as journalists struggle against secretive governments, corrupt media, and threatened or actual violence. At the first morning panel of the Nieman Foundation’s secrecy and journalism conference, international reporters and editors drew connections and contrasts between the situation here and abroad.

When media is part of the problem

Stefan Candea, a Nieman Fellow and founder of the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism, was 11 when communist rule collapsed in his home country, ending 50 years of media as propaganda tool. Today, however, the media is still far from being without fear or favor.

“We were told by the chief justice in Massachusetts that a functioning democracy requires a free ballot, free judges, and a free media. We have none of those in Romania,” he said. “The traditional media is not free because it’s run by local oligarchs whose main source of income is working with the state. Their only motivation with owning media is to stay out of jail.” Candea said that one one media owner told his top news management that his company should act like the keys to his limousine: “If you turn the key to the right it should start; if you turn the key to the left it should stop.”

So Candea left Romania’s print world, which he said taught him what not to do, and formed CRJI, which began tracking and exposing the close ties between media, political power and organized crime. But to gather that information, his organization has had to be flexible on its sources. “We don’t refuse access to any databases, whether it’s a hacked database or not, because we have so few sources of information,” he said.

Desperate times, creative measures

In 1993, Cambodia saw its own revolution in the form of free elections, which also ushered in the creation of a free press. But while things were better, newly passed freedom of information laws were almost universally unenforced, according to Kevin Doyle, Nieman Fellow and founder of the Cambodia Daily. After a 1997 grenade attack on peaceful protesters outside the country’ judiciary left 16 dead, officials were widely suspected of encouraging the attacks. Weak freedom-of-information laws, however, meant journalists could do little but question the government’s flat denials. Years passed without any progress on solving the case.

And then the Cambodia Daily got creative: One of Doyle’s staff, based in the United States, suggested a Freedom of Information Act request might yield results, since the FBI had come in to investigate because one of the dead was an American. Two years later, after a long and dogged process, the FBI finally released the files.

“The FBI found witnesses that implicated the state in the attacks, to the point of the police allowing the attackers through a police brigade while those persuing them were stopped,” said Doyle. In a country with so few sources of official information, it was a major coup.

WikiLeaks with a local impact

Well before the current blockbuster leaks made WikiLeaks a household name, the organization made several releases that still had a wide ranging impact. One occurred right in the backyard of Rob Rose, a Nieman Fellow and reporter for South Africa’s Sunday Times.

South Africa had convened a commission to look into banking inequality — a legacy of the country’s apartheid past — but the released report was so redacted as to be almost farcical. WikiLeaks obtained and released the unredacted report, possibly by simply removing the commission’s poorly performed blackouts. The impact was tremendous. “It accelerated change in the banking system, which I thought was a critical event,” said Rose.

Another incident, however, exposed the dangers journalists face when aggressively pursuing leaked stories. World Cup soccer is big business for the host country, but contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars in public money were withheld from the public. Then the Sunday Times received a CD full of the unredacted contracts, exposing contractor and bidding corruption that cost taxpayers millions. But the day before Rose left for his Nieman Fellowship, he said, a colleague was arrested for reporting on the documents.

The prospects for improved press freedom laws in the future aren’t looking bright. “What hasn’t helped is that countries like China have seen huge economic success without a free press,” he said. “China is a huge trading partner of many African countries, and they’ve used the success of China to repeal certain press laws.”

The limits of leaks

But while leaks, even those of dubious legality, are a critical reporting tool throughout the world, they cannot begin to replace solid investigative reporting, Alejandra Matus said.

Matus, a Nieman Fellow last year and a freelance investigative journalist from Chile, spent six years investigating the Chilean court system, hoping to emerge with enough material for a book. “I found myself reporting in the courts where everything was secret,” she said. “The testimonies, the disposition, how they arrived at decisions.”

It was a long, tedious process of showing up to the courthouse, meeting people, and slowly gaining their confidence. Sometimes, Matus said, they gave her documents but more often they just gave information. “That is not the type of information you could leak to WikiLeaks,” she said. Instead, it was the explaining the procedures and systems, and the back story, that allowed such a broken court system to continue.

And at the end of her six years, Matus found she still did not have enough for her book. Instead, she went and studied other legal systems around the world for reference. “It was not that the book revealed one secret or one wrongdoing of one person, but the book put in context a whole system that wasn’t working,” she said. Part of the job was getting the secrets, she said but the bigger task was the processing of the information, much of which was already public or at least known locally, in order to create a traceable, irrefutable account of what was wrong.

“I’ve seen a lot of hysteria by journalists around WikiLeaks — they feel threatened,” she said. “I think the most meaningful part of this is he had to give the information to journalists to process it. That’s why there are journalists: to do the boring part.”

15:00

The changing of the gatekeeper: Adapting to the new roles for journalists, sources and information

We’re continuing our recaps of the Secrecy and Journalism in the New Media Age conference that took place at the Nieman Foundation on Thursday with the second panel discussion — entitled “Whither the Gatekeeper? Navigating New Rules and Roles in the Age of Radical Transparency.”

The discussion centered on the issue of how has journalism responded to WikiLeaks and others doing some of the work traditionally done by journalists — namely ferreting out documents and information — and how reporters and editors remain important as the interpreters and analysts of news.

The panel includes Walter Pincus, intelligence and national security reporter for The Washington Post, Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, Clint Hendler, staff writer for the Columbia Journalism Review, and Maggie Mulvihill, senior investigative producer for the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. Below you’ll also find the archived liveblog and online discussion from the session.

December 17 2010

19:00

Bill Keller on how WikiLeaks has evolved, the NYT reporting process, and threats to national security

Bill Keller’s keynote speech at the Secrecy and Journalism in the New Media Age conference garnered a lot of attention Thursday after the New York Times executive editor made a notable distinction between himself and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange: I don’t regard Julian Assange as a kindred spirit. If he’s a journalist, he’s not the kind of journalist that I am.

Keller’s talk was a broad discussion of the Times’ handling of WikiLeaks documents, from parsing files in the computer-assisted reporting unit to conversations with lawyers and officials in the U.S. government. But Keller also took time to address some of the criticisms of the Times’ working with WikiLeaks. On Thursday, our Michael Morisy summarized Keller’s speech for the Lab, and here is the full video which includes the Q&A. We’ve also included the archived liveblog of the talk with commentary from Twitter.

18:30

Accountability journalism and the law: An international perspective on prosecuting the whistleblowers

If you weren’t able to attend the secrecy and journalism conference here at the Nieman Foundation on Thursday we’ve got good news: You can see it all in video recaps of the day. We’ve already posted the morning keynote from the AP’s Kathleen Carroll, and here’s the first panel discussion: “Prosecuted, Banned, Blamed: Reporters Push Boundaries as a Voice of Public Accountability.”

In light of the news that U.S. authorities are contemplating whether criminal charges can be brought against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the assembled panel of current and former Nieman Fellows talk about the real threat of prosecution that journalists often face abroad. The panel features Stefan Candea, Rob Rose, Alejandra Matus, and Kevin Doyle offering perspectives on the situation for journalists in Romania, South Africa, Chile and Cambodia. We’ve also included the archived liveblog of the discussion from inside the room and online.

16:00

DDoS attacks on the U.S. media, Twitter history searching, and a big blog deal: More predictions for 2011

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2010 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Below are predictions from Michael Schudson, Alexis Madrigal, Markos Moulitsas, Joy Mayer, Nicco Mele, Nikki Usher, Steve Buttry, Paddy Hirsch, John Davidow, Ethan Zuckerman, Richard Lee Colvin, and Kevin Kelly.

We also want to hear your predictions: Today’s the last day we’ll be accepting entries in our Lab reader poll, where you tell us what you think we’ll be talking about in 2011. We’ll share those results in a couple days.

Michael Schudson, historian and sociologist, Columbia Journalism School

Prognosticating about the news media in these times is a risky business, but I’ll try one nonetheless: In 2011, none of the 250 largest U.S. cities will stop publishing (on paper) its last remaining daily newspaper. Cities with more than one daily newspaper may be reduced to one survivor.

Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic and co-founder, Longshot Magazine

One of the truly important big city papers will go digital-only.

Kevin Kelly, author and founder, Wired Magazine

Twitter will go down for 36 hours. The ensuing media attention will prompt a 10 percent increase in signups in the months following.

I’ll offer a slightly technical prediction. Denial of service attacks — DDoS — have already become a serious concern for independent media sites in countries like Russia, Thailand, and Vietnam. And DDoS has been a massive problem for WikiLeaks. I expect to see at least one major U.S. media site affected by DDoS and taken offline for a day or more in 2011. I also expect we’ll see one or more publications move from their own infrastructure to host with someone like Amazon, despite the concerns that the company hosting content might prevent its distribution.

I predict that next year’s most exciting media experiments will involve collaboration between journalists and audiences. The divide will grow between journalists who do and do not fundamentally understand and respect the value of conversation and contribution with users.

I also predict that we will we see the death of at least one traditional newspaper in a town with a vibrant community news startup.

WhiteHouse.gov will get more unique daily visitors than WashingtonPost.com by the end of 2011. WhiteHouse.gov is already competitive with MSNBC.com — and the WhiteHouse.gov operation continues to become more sophisticated and wide-reaching, covering the White House on a daily basis with photos, videos, podcasts, and blog posts.

Mobile devices — especially in the form of tablets like the iPad and Blackberry’s forthcoming Playbook — will become the dominant news delivery device in 2011.

Sarah Palin will run for president in the Republican Party’s presidential primary communicating with the public exclusively through Twitter, Facebook, email, personal appearances, and Fox News. She will eschew all other major media and be a viable candidate for president of the United States.

Social news will continue to become more and more important — and traditional news organizations will turn to trying to understand how news spreads socially.

More downsizing in the news biz, with potentially another major metropolitan newspaper or two to close or to severely reduce print publication.

CNN will solidify its campaign for the “middle,” MSNBC the left, and Fox the right, with all three becoming more blatant about their intended audience.

Steve Buttry, director of community engagement, TBD

Twitter will make some notable upgrades, including targeting and editing of tweets, historical searching, and some innovative commercial uses.

A leader will emerge in location-based news, social media, and commerce.

We will see some major realignment of journalism and news-industry organizations. Most likely: the merger of ASNE and APME, mergers of some state press associations, mergers of at least two national press organizations, mergers of some reporter-beat associations. One or more journalism organizations will close.

At least one high-profile news organization will drop its paywall.

My prediction for 2011 is a raft of data analysis and visualisation tools, as various parties try to solve the problems raised by large datasets from governments. In the longer term, I think real-time information, contextual information, and intelligent devices will play an increasingly important role.

I said that things would get ugly in 2010 and have been sadly proved right. I think they’ll get even uglier in 2011 as the reaction against the shift in power grows and the fallout from WikiLeaks continues. Expect a lot of rushed-through legislation against the invisible threats of the web, which has implications for journalists and publishers.

Paddy Hirsch, senior editor, public radio’s Marketplace

I think WikiLeaks will be stamped out by one or more governments, and we’ll see a slew of copycats pop up in its place, hosted by outraged freedom-of-speechers, on secure servers, in out of the way places. Think The Pirate Bay but with government material instead of movies.

John Davidow, executive editor, WBUR Boston

Our revenue models continue to weaken. Radio and television face extreme technological changes. IP radio is coming to our morning commute, threatening commercial and public radio alike. Television programming will continue to atomize and migrate seamlessly from screen to screen in our daily lives. Newspapers large and small face continued pressure on their bottoms lines. Despite all the major disruptions ahead, I believe the spirit of innovation and collaboration in our industry is up to the challenges ahead.

Heading into 2011, examples of innovation and new strategies are everywhere. On the public media front, NPR, CPB, and the Knight Foundation head into 2011 with Project Argo getting up to speed. This deep vertical strategy that will hit its stride in the coming year has the potential to add more depth and user engagement while at the same time helping local station bottom lines.

Major newspapers are taking dramatic steps to find sustainability models from their online products. In the coming year The New York Times will test the metered waters and The Boston Globe will be splitting its juggernaut website Boston.com into two sites, one free and one behind a paywall. Maybe a year from now we’ll have a better sense of what direction the newspaper industry should be going. I’m also encouraged by the emergence of increased local coverage and not just by Patch, but on citizen media sites like Placeblogger.com. Initiatives like these mean more jobs and more opportunity for our younger journalists. And it is those young journalists just starting out who, not just next year but in the years ahead, will provide the ideas and energy that will regenerate and redefine our industry.

Markos Moulitsas, founder and publisher, Daily Kos

One of the newsweeklies will fold operations, or at least become web-only. Same thing will happen to at least one top-20 circulation metropolitan newspaper. At least one independent blog network will be acquired in a nine-digit deal.

The sports leagues will work to bring more games onto their cable networks, like the NFL Network’s Thursday night games.

Consumer dissatisfaction with the media will continue to rise. In politics, conservatives will be even more convinced the media is out to get them, and will retreat deeper into their Fox News/Rush Limbaugh media cocoon. Progressives will realize that the media is basing their political stories on RNC press releases — just watch them treat every Sarah Palin tweet as “news,” while pretending the GOP actually cares about the deficit during the battle to raise the debt ceiling, despite their desperate fight for budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthy this lame-duck session.

More and more news content will be gathered and distributed through collaborations between for-profits and nonprofit print, online, and broadcast news outlets. This will be especially true for coverage of specialized areas such as education, science, medicine, the environment, and health.

December 16 2010

21:00

Bill Keller: WikiLeaks isn’t my kind of news org, but they have evolved

During a wide-ranging conversation on government secrecy and the relationship between The New York Times and WikiLeaks, Times executive editor Bill Keller was asked whether he’d be bothered if WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange were charged under the Espionage Act, as Senator Joe Lieberman recently suggested.

“Let me back into that question,” he said. “I don’t regard Julian Assange as a kindred spirit. If he’s a journalist, he’s not the kind of journalist that I am.

He said, though, that in some ways WikiLeaks has shifted in the direction of traditional journalism and away from the style of its earlier publications, which were largely just data, unredacted and without comment.

“They have moved to becoming an organization that is leaking out the documents in a more journalistic fashion,” he said. “I don’t think they’ve become my kind of news organization, but they have evolved.”

Keller spoke at the Nieman Foundation’s one-day conference on secrecy and journalism Thursday, where WikiLeaks was a common topic of discussion.

Strange bedfellows in a “new era”

Whatever reservations Keller has about Assange-as-journalist, The New York Times has been at the forefront of getting the organization’s materials to the public — as well as helping shape, at times indirectly, WikiLeaks’ own editorial policies even as the Times worked to decide which materials it would publish of the hundreds of thousands of available documents.

Keller took on critics of the Times’ publication of WikiLeaks’ documents, saying their critiques generally fell into three broad categories:

  • The leaks don’t contain any new information. “Ninety-nine percent of news doesn’t greatly impact our understanding of the world,” Keller said. “News generally works by advancing our knowledge by inches. For those that follow foreign policy, these documents provide nuance, texture, and drama. For these that don’t follow these stories closely, it allows them to learn more and learn in a more lively way.”
  • The leaks disclosed confidential informats or endanger international relationships. “In the end, I can only answer for what my paper has done, and I believe we have behaved responsibly” in editing the material, he said. And to the latter point: “Foreign leaders will continue to talk to us. It’s the way of power to brag.”
  • The collaboration compromised the Times’ impartiality and independence. “Wikileaks does not take guidance from The New York Times,” Keller said, while noting that the Times was actually cut out from direct access to the leaked State Department cables, partially as a result of articles the Times had published.

But despite differences between the newspaper and the organization, Keller said that the paper still provided leadership for the international press on how to handle the material and the organization providing it. He said that “in most cases” the international papers, such as Der Spiegel and the Guardian, followed The New York Times’ guidance and what materials to release or not to release, occasionally differing on materials of particular interest to a certain country (such as the Merkel cables with the Germany’s Der Spiegel). WikiLeaks itself has also followed many of the Times’ suggested redactions.

“Wikileaks, having been castigated for the first two rounds of document dumps, basically said that this time around they would take the redactions we gave them,” Keller said.

The vetting process

Keller also detailed the process by which The New York Times vetted and processed the vast amounts of information, saying that the Times and other news organizations had now finished publishing all the major stories based on the documents they expected to write.

  • “The first thing we would do is talk with the lawyers about if there’s a legal problem with using this material and, if so, is there a way around it.”
  • The Times then vetted the cables with reporters familiar with similar secret documents and quickly decided the trove was genuine.
  • The Times’ computer-assisted reporting team dumped the database into a searchable format, bringing in reporters and professionals to search for interesting keywords to begin reporting. “No news organization claims to have read all of those documents,” he said.
  • Reporters then dove into and developed deeper stories based on the cables, occasionally sharing interesting segments with their colleagues overseas.
  • The New York Times performed “common sense” redactions on the material, removing names of low-level informants and other sensitive material
  • The New York Times took its redactions to the U.S. government, occasionally taking feedback and redacting information it felt would needlessly endanger lives.

“We then basically agreed on a schedule where day one would be Pakistan day and day two would be Russia day, something like that,” Keller said. “We rolled out on that schedule, and we agreed to give WikiLeaks the documents we intended to publish on each day’s stories, with our redactions.”

Throughout it all, however, Keller said the Times kept a very clear view of what WikiLeaks was and was not in its reporting. “What I have said from the very beginning of this is WikiLeaks is a source, not a partner. The Guardian was kind of a partner in this, because we swapped data and thoughts back and forth saying, ‘Hey, look at this table.’ There was none of that back and forth with WikiLeaks.”

19:00

Technology makes secrets easier to hide, easier to find: AP’s Kathleen Carroll on secrecy in journalism

We’re in the middle of our day-long conference on the role of secrecy in journalism (and of journalism in secrecy, to think of it). Bill Keller’s currently at the podium; check the livestream and liveblogs for more.

But if you can’t make the livestream (or be here in Cambridge), we’ll be posting full video of each session. Here’s the first one: Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of the Associated Press, who gave the opening keynote address. Below the jump, I’m including the archived liveblog from the session. Watch this space over the next day or so for videos of the four additional sessions.

13:30

Live today: A Nieman conference on the role of secrecy in journalism; follow along through video and blogs

Today, the Nieman Foundation is hosting a one-day conference entitled From Watergate to WikiLeaks: Journalism and Secrecy in the New Media Age. If you’re here in Cambridge for the event, come say hello! (We’re in the basement, by the washing machine.) But if you’re watching from afar, you can watch a video livestream and follow along with our liveblogs below, throughout the day. (You can also watch #niemanleaks on Twitter.)

The schedule in brief is below (all times Eastern); in full, it’s here:

9:00 a.m.: Introduction by Bob Giles and Barry Sussman

9:10 a.m.: Opening keynote by Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of the Associated Press

10:00 a.m.: Panel I on the international perspective, featuring journalists from Romania, Chile, South Africa, and Cambodia (Stefan Candea, Alejandra Matus, Rob Rose, and Kevin Doyle, respectively)

11:30 a.m.: Panel II on the U.S. perspective, featuring Walter Pincus (Washington Post), Danielle Brian (Project on Government Oversight), Clint Hendler (CJR), and Maggie Mulvihill (New England Center for Investigative Reporting)

1:15 p.m.: Keynote by Bill Keller, executive editor, The New York Times

2:30 p.m.: Panel III on the future of transparency, featuring Teru Kuwayama (Basetrack), Bill Allison (Sunlight Foundation), Aron Pilhofer (New York Times, DocumentCloud), David Kaplan (Int’l Consortium of Investigative Journalists), and John Bohannon (Science magazine), all moderated by the Lab’s own Megan Garber

4:00 p.m.: Wrapup

Immediately below is the live video, which should work from 9 a.m. to a little after 4 p.m. Underneath that are liveblogs for each of the panels and keynotes. Note that they’re separate from one another, so when one session is over, all the action will move to the next liveblog. (That’s a little awkward, but it should make things easier for looking back at each session after the fact.)








9:10 a.m.: Opening keynote by Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of the Associated Press

10:00 a.m.: Panel I on the international perspective, featuring journalists from Romania, Chile, South Africa, and Cambodia (Stefan Candea, Alejandra Matus, Rob Rose, and Kevin Doyle, respectively)

11:30 a.m.: Panel II on the U.S. perspective, featuring Walter Pincus (Washington Post), Danielle Brian (Project on Government Oversight), Clint Hendler (CJR), and Maggie Mulvihill (New England Center for Investigative Reporting)

1:15 p.m.: Keynote by Bill Keller, executive editor, The New York Times

2:30 p.m.: Panel III on the future of transparency, featuring Teru Kuwayama (Basetrack), Bill Allison (Sunlight Foundation), Aron Pilhofer (New York Times, DocumentCloud), David Kaplan (Int’l Consortium of Investigative Journalists), and John Bohannon (Science magazine), all moderated by the Lab’s own Megan Garber

December 15 2010

15:00

#Niemanleaks on Thursday: After WikiLeaks, a flood of new questions

While WikiLeaks’ recent document dumps have answered questions large and small (How many civilians have been killed in Iraq? Does Muammar al-Gaddafi prefer blondes or brunettes?), the organization’s controversial brand of journalism has raised a lot more questions that scholars, working journalists and legal systems around the world are just now beginning to tackle. The Nieman Foundation is hosting “From Watergate to WikiLeaks: Secrecy and Journalism in the New Media Age,” at which speakers ranging from The New York Times’ executive editor Bill Keller to The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus will offer their insight into how the rules are changing.

Here are a few of the questions we’ve seen raised, and where you might begin to figure out some answers tomorrow. If you won’t be in attendance, check back here Thursday morning for the live video stream, or watch #niemanleaks on Twitter.

Is WikiLeaks journalism? What does that mean when everyone can blog, Tweet and share instantly with an audience around the world?

Check out the 2:30 p.m. (EST) panel, “Secrets 2.0: Exploring Entrepreneurial Answers to Journalistic Obligations,” which will feature the Sunlight Foundation’s Bill Allison, Basetrack’s Teru Kuwayama, the New York Times’ Aron Pilhofer and others who are helping answer that question through innovative approaches to what journalism is, while pushing back on the notion of what it isn’t. For example, Knight News Challenge winner Basetrack pairs professional war correspondence with the thoughts and reactions of U.S. Marines and their families, who are also blogging their experiences. The Sunlight Foundation, on the other hand, takes massive data sets and made them more accessible and useful, often leaving it up to the reader to connect the dots in creative new ways.

What should we make on all the legal and political pressure being put on WikiLeaks and other news organizations? Should the law dictate how and what is reported, and where do you draw the line on either side?

The “Prosecuted, Banned, Blamed: Reporters Push Boundaries as a Voice of Public Accountability” panel at 10:00 a.m. features a global perspective from current and past Nieman Fellows, including Stefan Candea, who helped map out Romania’s complex web of political and media ownership, as well as fellows from Chile, Cambodia, and South Africa. It will be moderated by the Nieman Foundation’s Stefanie Friedhoff.

For a more local perspective, head to “Whither the Gatekeeper? Navigating New Rules and Roles in the Age of Radical Transparency.” It’ll feature The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus, Clint Hendler from Columbia Journalism Review, Maggie Mulvihill from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and Danielle Brian from the Project on Government Oversight. It’ll be moderated by Nieman Reports‘ Melissa Ludtke.

So in the end, what’s changed post-WikiLeaks?

The conference’s keynotes will tackle the big question of what changes between media and their sources as those sources can increasingly go direct to the audience with their message. Kathleen Carroll executive editor of the Associated Press, will discuss freedom of information in the digital age at 9:10 a.m., while the Times’ Bill Keller will address secrecy, national security, and the press at 1:15 p.m.

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