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WIKILEAKS: YOU CAN’T SHOUT FIRE IN A CROWDED THEATRE

When I was a freshman journalism student in college I couldn’t wait to run around campus digging up fantastic and shocking news stories. I was going to set the world on fire and be the youngest Nobel Award winner on record.

But in the immortal words of Lee Corso from College Game Day, “Not so fast my friend”. Before we learned the basic craft of news writing we learned the history of the fourth estate, the role of the press in a free society, and, most importantly, the ethics of the press. A couple of points stand out in my memory from those courses:

  1. Along with freedom of the press comes responsibility
  2. Always check and recheck the facts
  3. No one but your editor EVER reviews your story before publication
  4. Be ever vigilant of libelous material but TRUTH is the only defense needed
  5. A news story is always impartial—when opinion enters in it is called an editorial
  6. You can’t shout fire in a crowded theatre

Sadly, I have watched the quality of good journalism gradually decline over the years.  So much so that I question whether or not these points are even covered today in journalism courses. With the dawn of the electronic age this decline has rapidly increased.  Anyone with a computer and access to the web can now call himself/herself a journalist. I use the term “journalist” very loosely. These people are now making up facts and spewing out garbage. It would be nice to ingnore these people but even reputable and established news organizations are picking up information they found on the web and from bloggers and passing it off as fact. Unfortunately, the web has taken on a life of its own and once an idea is put out into cyber space it circulates around the world with warp speed and remains forever.

As soon as I post this piece it can be read in China within seconds. Recently I posted a new entry to my blog and before I closed down the computer at 11:30 pm I checked my stats page to see if anyone had read it yet. To my amazement it showed several had already read it and the date listed was for the next day! I had gained a readership several time zones away! This illustrates the enormous outreach even a simple blogger like myself can have.

To illustrate this point even more I recall the debacle that resulted several weeks ago when it was reported that President Obama’s upcoming trip was going to cost the taxpayers an enormous amount per day—even surpassing the amount per day the war is costing us. This bit of info was wildly circulated, pundits from a conservative news network that advertises itself as “fair and balanced news” ranted about this outrageous cost. Once tempers calmed and the smoke cleared it was discovered that this misinformation came from a blogger in India! Obviously, the reporters and editors who broke this news did not “check and recheck” their facts.

This brings me to the current debate over the WikiLeaks. At a news conference at Eurasian University on her first visit to this central Asian nation Hillary Clinton was asked about WiliLeaks’ release of more than a quarter millian diplomatic files. One questioner asked about her views about striking the proper balance between Internet freedom and protection of information and privacy. She replied, “I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.” She did not get more explicit until another member of the audience asked directly what she thought about the matter. She replied she thought it was “a very irresponsible and thoughtless act.” She reiterated the administration’s worry that the release could endanger people cooperating confidentially with U.S. embassies abroad to point out acts of government abuse or violations of civil rights.

Let us look at the latest WikiLeaks from my old professors’ viewpoints.

  1. The information is factual so we need not worry about checking facts or releasing libelous material. All incidents and facts are apparently related from the person involved.
  2. Freedom of the press and freedom of the web allows the info to be printed but is it the responsible thing to do? What are the consequences of releasing the material? If a law is passed prohibiting WikiLeaks from releasing information without prior government review does that law also reach to a lowly blogger like myself? Do I have to submit every blog post to a review panel before publication? Are we headed toward censorship?
  3. Which brings us to item #3 on my list—no one ever reviews your story before publication (with the exception of your editor). By ignoring their responsibilities have WikiLeak endangered all writers? Did they stop to think of the consequences and far-reaching effects of their actions?
  4. Have lives been endangered? When releasing information that endangers the lives and safety of others this is not responsible journalism. To yell “fire” in a crowded theatre when, in fact, there is no fire just induces panic and creates a stampede that could endanger the lives of others.

The journalism fraternity, known as the fourth estate, is unofficially known as the fourth branch of checks and balances that ensures our government operates fairly and efficiently. It is the watch dog that keeps the legislators and officials honest. We must have a free and open press but with this freedom comes the responsibility of reporting fair and accurate news. I fear the current media trend has gone too far and sacrificed its ethics (its soul) just to scoop its competitor. Today’s electronic journalism and constant 24 hour news services have created a monster.

For the sake of grabbing headlines the press has resorted to shouting fire in a crowded theatre.

 
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© © Copyright 2012 Sheila Dobbie, Gahanna, Ohio
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