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Sustaining Democracy in a Digital Age

A Blog from New America's Media Policy Initiative

Data, diffusion, impact: Five big questions the Wikileaks story raises about the future of journalism

Published:  July 26, 2010

Originally published at Nieman Journalism Lab.

Whenever big news breaks that’s both (a) exciting and (b) relevant to the stuff I research, I put myself through a little mental exercise. I pretend I have an army of invisible Ph.D. students at my beck-and-call and ask them to research the three most important “future of news” items that I think emerge out of the breaking news. That way, I figure out for myself what’s really important amidst all the chaos.

The Wikileaks-Afghanistan story is big. It’s big for the country, it’s big for NATO soldiers and Afghan civilians, and (probably least importantly) it’s big for journalism. And a ton of really smart commentary has been written about it already. So all I want to do here is chime in on what I’d be focusing on if I wanted to understand the Wikileaks story in a way that will still be relevant one year, five years, even twenty years from now. I want to briefly mention three quick assignments I’d give my hypothetical Ph.D. students, and two assignments I’d keep for myself.
 
Watch the news diffuse: The release of the Wikileaks stories yesterday was a classic case study of the new ecosystem of news diffusion. More complex than the usual stereotype of “journalists report, bloggers opine,” in the case the Wikileaks story we got to see a far more nuanced (and, I would say, far more real) series of news decisions unfold: from new fact-gatherers, to news organizations in a different position in the informational chain, all the way to the Twittersphere in which conversation about the story was occurring in real-time, back to the bloggers, the opinion makers, the partisans, the politicians, and the hacks. This is how news works in 2010; let’s try to map it.
 
What’s the frame?: This one’s simple, but interesting because of that simplicity. With the simultaneous release of the same news story by three different media organizations, all in different countries (The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel), all coming out with the same set of 92,000 documents, we’ve got almost a lab-quality case study here of how different national news organizations talk about the news differently. Why did The Guardian headline civilian casualties while the Times chose to talk about the U.S. relationship with Pakistan? And what do these differences in framing say about how the rest of the world sees the U.S. military adventure in Afghanistan?
 
What’s the impact?: Will the “War Logs” release have the same impact that the Pentagon Papers did, either in the short of long term? And why will the stories have the impact they do? Like Jay Rosen, I’m sadly skeptical that this huge story will change the course of the war in the way the Ellsberg leaks did. And like Rosen, I think a lot of the reasons lie beyond journalism — they lie in the nature of politics and the way society and the political elite process huge challenges to our assumed, stable world views.
 
I might make one addition to Jay’s list about the impact of this story though — one that has to do with the speed of the news cycle. Like I noted already, there’s nothing more exciting than watching these sorts of stories unfold in real time. But I wonder if the “meme-like” nature of their distribution — and the fact that there will always be another meme, another bombshell — blunts their impact. You don’t have to be Nicholas Carr to get the feeling that we’re living in a short-attention span, media-saturated society; I wonder what it would take for a story like the “War Logs” bombshell to stick around in the public mind long enough for it to mean something.
 
So those are stories I’d give my grad students. Here are the topics I’d be keeping for myself:
 
Why Wikileaks?: I talked about this a bit over in my column today at NPR, so I’ll just summarize my main points from there. Looking rationally at the architecture of the news ecosystem, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that Wikileaks would have been tapped to serve as the intermediary for this story. After all, they just turned around and fed it to three big, traditional, national newspapers. There is, of course, Wikileaks’ technical expertise; what Josh Young called their “focus lower in the journalism stack…on the logistics of anonymity.” But I think there’s more to it than that. I think to understand “why Wikileaks,” you have to think in terms of organizational culture as well as network architecture and technical skills. In short, I think Wikileaks has an organizational affinity with folks who are most likely to be on the leaking end of the news in today’s increasingly wired societies. To understand the world of Wikileaks, and what it means for journalism, you have to understand the world of geeks, of hackers, and of techno-dissidents. Understanding reporting and reporters isn’t enough.
 
Journalism in the era of big data: Finally, it’s here where I’d start to draw the links between the “War Logs,” the Washington Post “Top Secret America” series, and even the New York Times front page story on the increasing conservatism of the Roberts Supreme Court. What do they all have in common? Databases, big data, an attempt to get at “the whole picture” — and maybe even a slight sense of letdown. The Washington Post story took years to write and came with a giant database. The Afghanistan story was based on 92,000 documents, many of which might have been largely inaccurate. And the Roberts story unapologetically quoted “an analysis of four sets of political science data.”
 
We’re seeing here the full-throated emergence of what a lot of smart people have been talking about for years now: data-driven journalism, but data in the service of somehow getting to the “big picture” about what’s really going on in the world. And this attempt to get at the big picture carries with it the risk of a slight letdown, not because of journalism, but because of us. As Ryan Sholin noted on Twitter, “Much like the massive WaPo story on secrecy, I don’t see much new [in the Wikileaks story], other than the sheer weight of failure.”
 
Part of what we’ve been trained, as a society, to expect out of the Big Deal Journalistic Story is something “new,” something we didn’t know before. Nixon was a crook! Osama Bin Laden was found by the CIA and then allowed to escape! But in these recent stories, its not the presence of something new, but the ability to tease a pattern out of a lot of little things we already know that’s the big deal. It’s not the newsness of failure; as Sholin might put it, it’s the weight of failure. It remains to be seen how this new focus on “the pattern” will change our political culture, our news culture, and the expectations we have of journalism. And it will be interesting to see what the focus on data leaves out. This week, however, big-data journalism proved its mettle.

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