By Charlie Osborne | December 1, 2011, 2:42pm PST
Summary: Is an increasingly digital network of information changing, amid the aftermath of the Wikileaks ‘Cablegate’ release, what does it means to be a ‘journalist’?
One year ago, WikiLeaks published a treasure trove of over 250,000 leaked cables from U.S. embassies abroad.
As copycat platforms sprung up in Europe and beyond, Julian Assange became the ranting main character in a media tabloid sitcom.
But how, if at all, did the availability of raw, confidential data change the face of journalism?
The call for the spread of visibility became an intense debate across media platforms. This visibility may itself be on the rise, considering the recent attacks on students at UC Davis or the arrest of a British woman after racial attacks on the London Tube.
Arguably, ‘reporting’ on the ground by citizen journalists is on the increase through the spread of social media, but it has not had the forceful impact that releasing confidential cables achieved globally.
Criminal violations or not, WikiLeaks became an invaluable resource for that next breaking piece of news. Or did it?
WikiLeaks may have been the catalyst to change our perspectives on the ways in which we can gain information, and in turn act upon it. WikiLeaks was not the change itself in content distribution, but it did signify a broad shift of power in digital technology.
Before ‘Cablegate’, nobody really seemed to take much notice.
As global networks became greater and more data was recorded online, more sources were bound to emerge: authorised or unauthorised. WikiLeaks took advantage of a gap in state surveillance, with governmental bodies unable to truly control or understand the flow of information seeping across digital networks.
The rules — ideally — can be viewed as basic within journalism, by having substantial information and verified sources. However, WikiLeaks sources containing raw data often decoupled information from its context.
Attempting to process such a vast amount of raw data and crunching numbers can be a discouraging prospect unless you have the time to sift through to find your story. This is not necessarily something that journalists in the majority collective are equipped to deal with.
Just because information is available online doesn’t mean people will spend the time cracking secrets or interpreting information. Chasing the secret may be the thrill involved in many aspects of journalism; but is this to the detriment of local reporters on the ground that may have a better view of what is actually going on?
Governmental bodies began to react by inducing a greater level of censorship, and stepping up their online surveillance to try and control the flow of information. Paradoxically, a greater wealth of information online available to journalists to penetrate may in fact be the pull that tightens the noose.
Perhaps this is a temporary free information flow, and we can already see the reaction of governmental and entertainment industries, who don’t like to be undermined.
SOPA appears, domain names are seized, and judges attempt to order de-indexing of sites. These may be the first major publicised signs that the biggest players are trying to grasp control of how we are really networked.
The media operates within a network of leaked information, and WikiLeaks may have been more than a disruption of traditional, on the ground journalistic practice. It has been a catalyst that is beginning to alter what it means to be a journalist.
British universities, for example, are expanding their offerings by beginning to offer courses in interactive journalism in an attempt catch up.
Mainstream journalists are not all necessarily aware of the potential of online networks. Data journalism is more expensive and time consuming than traditional forms, and there is no reason that every journalist must now learn how to be a programmer or spend sleepless nights crunching numbers and verifying sources.
But journalism in itself has to learn a new set of skills in order to keep up with the changing face of content distribution.
If the next generation of journalists do not understand network theory, social platforms or cyber-security, this may inhibit their ability to spot connections and report effectively in a rapidly digitised world.