Besides forcing government and national-security institutions to face the public about their spying efforts, Edward Snowden's decision to release information on America's massive public surveillance efforts has thrown another system into a flurry of self-examination:
The American news media.
As New York Times columnist David Carr explored on Monday, Snowden's leaks raise the question of who actually qualifies as a journalist. It's not just a philosophical question: the government tends to shy from prosecuting reporters for the kind of information gathering that gets a spy or public citizen jailed. Carr and the Times public editor Margaret Sullivan both tackled discussions about who gets to be a journalist and the implications of how that question is answered.
I tend to side with thinkers such as New York University's Jay Rosen and City University of New York's Jeff Jarvis, who note that tools available through smartphones and the Internet allow anyone to become a reporter. Given that, the question changes from "Who is a journalist?" to "What is journalism?"
I talked about this nearly two years ago, as the first speaker at the Poynter Institute's debut TEDx event, in a presentation titled "Journalism as an act." The title came from an observation I made after watching a local "hot talk" radio personality and a woman who usually makes adult videos turn briefly into news reporters, relaying information publicly about a police standoff with a man who had shot three officers in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Journalism, I noted then, was turning from a craft into an act.
That may be tough to swallow for those of us who do this work all day, every day. There is, no doubt, a craft to the unearthing of information, the assembling of words and the placing of events in context with as much fairness as possible. People using their smartphone to record video of a fire or riot likely don't have any of those skills at hand.
But media figures who are also advocates for a point of view utilize those skills, too. Take Glenn Greenwald, the blogger/writer who reported on Snowden's leaks for The Guardian at the same time as the traditional journalists at The Washington Post. Greenwald's perspective and history of advocacy don't invalidate his journalism work, but they do require readers to come to his reporting with a knowledge of that history, letting them judge for themselves if his work is fair and accurate enough to be trusted.
That's why I think any talk of a shield law for journalists needs to center on the work done, not the job title. If the point of a shield law is to keep the public as informed as possible by protecting journalists from prosecution for keeping their sources secret, it makes sense to extend that privilege to people practicing journalism, who otherwise might not be considered members of the club.
Debate over these issues has gotten heated, with critics assailing NBC's David Gregory and The New York Times' Andrew Ross Sorkin for suggesting in various ways that Greenwald should or could be arrested for his work (Sorkin has since apologized for saying on CNBC that he would "almost arrest" Greenwald; he also called him a journalist).
In a piece titled "Meet the 'Journalists Against Journalism' club," Salon columnist David Sirota criticized Gregory, Sorkin and others as "a group of reporters and pundits who are outraged that whistle-blowers and news organizations are colluding to expose illegal government surveillance."
Sirota also slammed The Washington Post's editorial board for suggesting the Obama administration cut a deal with Snowden which forgoes prosecution to get him back to America and stop the leaks that the newspaper's own journalists have helped reveal to the world. Fred Hiatt, the Washington Post's editorial-page editor, said in an email to Adweek that he saw no conflict between noting the journalistic usefulness of Snowden's early leaks and urging the government to stop leaks that could harm legal anti-terrorism efforts.
At issue is the question of whether some of the country's top journalists have become part of a chummy club that supports government power rather than challenging it. Focusing on journalism as an act helps defuse that argument, too: if anyone can benefit from the protections of reporting on whistle-blowers, there is less power in being among the chosen.
Still, Snowden's efforts to avoid prosecution remind me of a conversation I once had with a civil-rights activist at the Martin Luther King Center who said followers of Dr. King's non-violent protest strategy saw accepting arrest and prosecution as an important part of their movement.
Accepting such punishment not only showed the public that protesters were largely law-abiding, but also offered a chance to show how unfair such laws could be through court challenges and publicity.
It's a good reminder that, as much as journalists want access to those with important information and valuable as whistle-blowing can be, sometimes those who practice civil disobedience by leaking to us must also face the consequences of breaking the law.
International Institute for ICT Journalism