Journalism’s Assange problem

These days, anybody with an internet connection can be a publisher.

That doesn’t make everybody a journalist.

This distinction has become more important than ever in light of two recent events.

One was the arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The other was a proposal by lawmakers from Georgia, the Peach State, that looked more like an export from the Georgia that was part of the Soviet Union: a so-called “ethics in journalism” act that would have imposed onerous new requirements and potential civil penalties on reporters.

As soon as news broke of Assange’s potential extradition to the United States for trial on charges of conspiracy, his allies began campaigning to make him a Fourth Estate martyr.

“Every journalist in the world” should be speaking out on Assange’s behalf, said Intercept editor Glenn Greenwald. Another fugitive leaker of U.S. government secrets, Edward Snowden, tweeted that Assange’s arrest represents “a dark day for press freedom.”

As two journalism professors who practiced the craft for many years before becoming teachers of it, we know firsthand how powerfully reporters are drawn to unpopular causes. It’s an admirable reflex that often makes for great journalism and a better society.

But granting Assange journalist status is beyond problematic: It’s likely to draw more attacks on press freedom such as the Georgia lawmakers’ thinly disguised attempt to sanction and ostracize journalists whose work they don’t like.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in a police van, after his arrest by British police, in London, April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Standards differentiate journalism

As the Pew Research Center has shown, journalists already are an endangered species. In part that’s because the digital revolution eliminated the advertising that subsidized newsrooms.

But as the Knight Foundation has documented, those financial problems are compounded by a credibility crisis. “Most U.S. adults, including more than nine in 10 Republicans, say they personally have lost trust in the news media in recent years,” the foundation reported in September 2018.

There may be lots of reasons for this but it certainly doesn’t help that more Americans are getting their news from social media feeds that intermingle journalism with the kind of propaganda that is keeping Facebook busy playing whack-a-mole with trolls, sent a deluded man with a gun to a neighborhood pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C. and stoked protests on a college campus with incendiary fake tweets.

As a profession, journalists are becoming increasingly aware of the need to advocate for, and try to uphold, standards that differentiate them from those who merely make information available.

The New York Times did exactly that in 2010, when it ran stories based on documents obtained from WikiLeaks. An editor’s note explained why the Times believed publication to be in the public interest, how the paper gave government officials a chance to respond before publication, and how it redacted “information that would endanger confidential informants or compromise national security.”