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We should be thankful for WikiLeaks

By Roy Greenslade, Special to CNN
  • Greenslade: Posting of documents on WikiLeaks a triumph for "data journalism"
  • There is a long tradition of reporters scanning documents in order to obtain a great scoop
  • I concede I have downplayed the crucial business of analyzing raw data, Greenslade says
  • Source journalism is concealed from public gaze. Data journalism is more open, he says

Roy Greenslade is Professor of Journalism at City University, London. He also writes a daily media blog for The Guardian and a weekly column in the London Evening Standard. He has been a media commentator for 18 years. Before that he was the editor of Britain's Daily Mirror newspaper, managing editor of the Sunday Times and assistant editor of The Sun.

(CNN) -- The posting of 92,000 documents on WikiLeaks about the war in Afghanistan represents a triumph for what I like to call "data journalism."

There was a human source, of course, because someone, somewhere obviously passed the material to the website. But whoever the whistleblower was, he/she is far less important than the content of the documents themselves.

This raw material provided a rich seam for journalists on the three news outlets -- the New York Times, The Guardian and Germany's Der Spiegel -- to mine. Not only them, however. The Afghan War Diary is up there on the net available for anyone to seek out their own gold nuggets of information.

Journalists trawling through data is hardly a new phenomenon. There is a long and honorable tradition of reporters with a nose for a story scanning pages and pages of documents in order to unveil a killer fact or two in order to obtain a great scoop.

But it also has to be admitted that, within journalism, it has always been something of a minority sport, partially because it involved a lot of work and was anything but glamorous. In modern times, with increasing pressure on newsrooms to be more cost efficient, editors became increasingly reluctant to allow their staff to spend the hours necessary to delve through endless piles of documents.

Past successes in "data journalism" are often forgotten. One glowing example was the Sunday Times's famous investigation into the use of thalidomide, the sedative produced by a German pharmaceutical company that was withdrawn from the market in 1961 after causing severe defects to babies.

During its investigation, the paper paid to acquire thousands of the company's internal documents about the drug, all of which needed translating into English. According to one of the reporters, Phillip Knightley, it then took "nearly a year of painstaking, time-consuming work" to make sense of them.

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Even in 1968, when the paper was well staffed and was happy to allocate resources to a team of investigative journalists, Knightley noted that "there were doubts about the value of such expensive, long-term projects."

Despite the successful journalistic outcome of that work, leading to improved payouts for thalidomide victims, those doubts about spending money and time on "data journalism" hardened in most British newspaper offices, especially as publishers began to put the squeeze on editorial budgets.

It is also surely significant that the early 1970s saw what has been hailed as the greatest journalistic scoop of all time -- the Watergate investigation by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Their reporting depended to an extent on a secret source, Deep Throat, and journalists ever since have been slaves to their own deep throats. Here was the real glamour.

Confidential sources have therefore come to be seen as the lifeblood of modern journalism, as I have said so often down the years to my journalism students. But I now concede that I have overstated the point and downplayed the important, and often crucial, business of discovering, reading and analyzing raw data.

If journalism is, as we sometimes claim, the first, rough draft of history, then we should behave more like historians who seek out primary sources in order to produce a better understanding of past events.

The really significant feature of the WikiLeaks material is that it is up-to-date data, enabling journalists and the public to obtain a clearer picture of what has been happening in Afghanistan. In that sense, the documents we can all now read offer us an invaluable insight.

However, the posting of the material on the internet is not in itself an act of journalism. It is merely the beginning of a journalistic process, requiring analysis, context and, in this particular instance, a form of necessary censorship in order to protect individuals identified in the documents.

I know that professional journalists are not the only people who can do this, but the majority of them have the required skills and knowledge that enable them to do the job well. That is clear from my reading of the revelations in both The Guardian and New York Times.

There may not be a so-called smoking gun. No president will fall, as in Watergate. But what emerges from the documents is a confirmation of the suspicions long aired by the media in Britain and the United States that the situation in Afghanistan is dreadful and has worsened over the years since 2004. That flies in the face of the regular official upbeat assessments.

The material is all the more authoritative because it has been compiled by troops on the ground reporting back on what they have seen and experienced. There is an absence of spin. The reports may not be objective -- nothing is -- but they are not designed to influence political decisions.

It could well be argued that Wikileaks, by placing such sensitive material in the public domain, was not being entirely objective either. But I am taken with the call by its editor-in-chief, Julian Assange, for news organizations to make more raw data available to the public.

He believes it will make the activity of journalism more transparent. In a recent interview, he contended that "journalism should be more like science" and added: "As far as possible, facts should be verifiable. If journalists want long-term credibility for their profession, they have to go in that direction. Have more respect for readers."

Source journalism, by its nature, is concealed from public gaze. Data journalism is more open, especially if the material is posted on the internet because it allows for the authenticity of competing analyses to be judged by the public .

We journalists should be delighted that WikiLeaks exists because our central task has always been one of disclosure, of revealing public interest material that others believe wish to be kept secret.

The website deserves our praise and needs to be defended against the reactionary forces that seek to avoid exposure.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roy Greenslade.