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Using WikiLeaks As a Tool In Investigative Journalism 39

Posted by timothy
from the army-of-one dept.
Hugh Pickens writes writes "It took a team of ten reporters working two months to sift through 250,000 confidential American diplomatic cables at the NY Times, but when a story idea recently came up that I wanted to research in more detail, I found Wikileaks to be a very useful and accessible tool for further investigation. First, some background: For the past ten years I have written stories about Peace Corps safety and medical issues, the Peace Corps' budget appropriations, and the work done by volunteers in their countries of service on a web site I publish called 'Peace Corps Online.' When the Peace Corps announced last month they were taking the unusual step of suspending their program in Kazakhstan and withdrawing all 117 volunteers, I decided to dig deeper and find out what was behind the decision to leave the country. First I went to blogs of volunteers serving in Kazakhstan and found that four rapes or sexual assaults of volunteers had occurred in the past year and that it had became increasingly difficult for volunteers to conduct their work. But the biggest revelation was when I found fourteen U.S. diplomatic cables on Wikileaks that cited elements in the Kazakhstani 'pro-Russian old-guard at the Committee for National Security (the KNB, successor to the KGB) aimed at discrediting the Peace Corps and damaging bilateral relations' with the U.S. Further investigation on Wikileaks revealed how one Peace Corps volunteer had been sentenced to two years imprisonment in 2009 after 'what appeared to be a classic Soviet-style set-up.' The volunteer was only freed through the diplomatic efforts of U.S. Ambassador Richard Hoagland and the personal intervention of Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev."
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Using WikiLeaks As a Tool In Investigative Journalism

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  • by eldavojohn (898314) * <[moc.liamg] [ta] [nhojovadle]> on Monday December 19, 2011 @09:10AM (#38423186) Journal
    Well, no wonder news reporting is in such a sorry pathetic state these days.

    How did you verify this information that you found on a third party site? How did you confirm that the U.S. diplomats were not trying to re-awaken old fears of the KGB by spreading misinformation in their communications? Did you find any evidence in these communications of the volunteers doing anything wrong? Did you contact the people the volunteers had worked with in Kazakhstan? Did you request a comment from the KNB?

    Further investigation on Wikileaks revealed ...

    No, that is wrong. That is not journalism. Nothing was revealed. You have a tip. Face it, you can't wake up, make a cup of coffee in your home and decide that today you're going to 'do' investigative journalism. Journalists are people who go out and acquire information, allegations, evidence, testimony, etc first hand. You could have started with Wikileaks as a tip, as a lead and put together your own external information from multiple sources. At best you have one side of an issue here and at worst you've been indirectly mislead. This shouldn't be called journalism. This should be called "googling."

    I'm not saying you are wrong with this information, what I'm saying is that the NY Times wouldn't run this story unless they did due diligence to be completely sure they are 100% right because they are held to journalistic standards. As a blogger or armchair Wikileaks reader, you have nothing to lose by publishing this under your pseudo-name online. "Oh, maybe I'll try my hand at investigative journalism today." But let's face it, you get this wrong and you lose nothing. A journalist gets this wrong and they should lose their job and be blacklisted. And that's how news sources work.

    • If that truely is how the media works, then there would be a outcry against the writers and the editors each time a court case went in the opposite direction of what the newspapers wrote about.
      I am quite sure I have read about the media preconvicted a lot of people, turning medias frontpages into smear campaigns.

      • by migla (1099771)

        Just because any number of representatives of media are doing bad journalism, doesn't alter what journalism should be. And just because any number of representatives of media are doing bad journalism doesn't mean anyone should do bad journalism.

        The state of things is quit dire, though, bad journalism being the norm. It all boils down to having an economic system in which greed is the core driving force and lying is the principal tool used.

        • by gstoddart (321705) on Monday December 19, 2011 @02:30PM (#38425084) Homepage

          Just because any number of representatives of media are doing bad journalism, doesn't alter what journalism should be.

          Should be doesn't necessarily define what journalism is.

          As often happens on Slashdot, people on Slashdot are defining what it is based on what they think it should be.

          The reality is, in its current state, 'journalism' covers a lot of things which doesn't necessarily live up to the level of rigor and independent verification which is being implied here. So, I completely fail to see how using Wikileaks to corroborate the stuff for your investigative journalism fails to be journalism.

          Journalism sometimes takes the form of publishing someone's press release in the guise of an article or just taking a story off the wire and re-publishing it ... which, sadly, is similar to how the people who pass laws just put forth copy provided by the people paying for those laws.

          Arbitrarily saying "one of these is real journalism and the other isn't" doesn't really serve any purpose as long as you don't hold the 'real' ones to any meaningful standard either. Unless you're holding the 'traditional' ones to account, what's the point in saying the others aren't really journalists either?

          • Arbitrarily saying "one of these is real journalism and the other isn't" doesn't really serve any purpose as long as you don't hold the 'real' ones to any meaningful standard either. Unless you're holding the 'traditional' ones to account, what's the point in saying the others aren't really journalists either?

            Ahhh, no.

            That's like saying you're a scientist and have revealed truth without having complied with the dictates of the scientific method. You may be right, the same way a broken clock is right twice a day, but you're not doing science.

            Both journalism and science are concerned with uncovering truth. That requires that falsity be systematically hunted down and excluded from the account to the greatest degree possible. The extent to which this achieved is the extent to which a scientist or journalist h

      • yes, it is. (Score:5, Interesting)

        by nazsco (695026) on Monday December 19, 2011 @03:43PM (#38425944) Journal

        I worked for a pretty huge newspaper from 1999 to mid 2000's

        Half of the guys called their contacts on the police PD, the other on the prefecture hall. And a few got cars and went to report on the occasional violent crime investigation.

        But most of them just browsed the internet and watched TV news... and typed that rightly into the paper/online version.

        Halfway of my time there, there was a new ombudsman (2yr as ombudsman criticizing the newspaper and listening to the public, 2yr back working regularly for the newspaper with no fear of being fired, then fired)

        His first sunday op-ed column was a critic about exactly that. That the newsroom was always crowded. no one ever left it. there was no real journalism going on.

        bonus history: one of the competing websites from another newspaper, outright copied our histories (which were type from TV most of the time anyway) and just time-stamped them a few minutes or hours earlier... sometimes creating timestamps of even before the reported event.

    • by mapkinase (958129)

      I suspect majority of "old" news work in similar way. Remember Iraq war? "Embedded" journalists? Did they do all this checks that you mentioned?

      Limited access to sources is very common in journalism, and you publish what you can telling people to take it with the grain of salt.

      The only bad thing he did is presenting his own conclusions.

      Forget about synthesis, it starts with analysis and ends with it.

    • And it could be even worse actually: They could be directly mislead. What if the information on Wikileaks is false? We have no real way of knowing how much of it is actually leaked US diplomatic cables. Could be all of it, however it also could be that someone put false information in there for their own reasons. It isn't as though the US went through and said "Yep, all these are legitimate, everything in here was originally a secret US communication."

      I'm not saying that is what happened in this case, I'm s

    • I'm not saying you are wrong with this information, what I'm saying is that the NY Times wouldn't run this story unless they did due diligence to be completely sure they are 100% right because they are held to journalistic standards. As a blogger or armchair Wikileaks reader, you have nothing to lose by publishing this under your pseudo-name online. "Oh, maybe I'll try my hand at investigative journalism today." But let's face it, you get this wrong and you lose nothing. A journalist gets this wrong and they should lose their job and be blacklisted. And that's how news sources work.

      Face it, Blogging, Twitter, even SMS have changed the foundation of journalism as we know it. It's now the people on the street who are witness to events and can record them with their cellphones and instantly upload them to the net - anonymously or not. The information moves so quickly around the world that many so called traditional journalists are left in the dust. So, you can stick with your old antiquated notions of what constitutes journalism (and many who do are part of an industry that is quickly go

      • Face it, Blogging, Twitter, even SMS have changed the foundation of journalism as we know it.

        When was that ever up for debate? Of course it has! Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse! When 'news' spreads like wildfire across Twitter and it turns out to be correct, it was a great thing. You might be downplaying the other results though.

        It's now the people on the street who are witness to events

        When was it anybody else? These are the first hand accounts you must go out and find your self, not through Wikileaks through stolen U.S. documents.

        and can record them with their cellphones and instantly upload them to the net - anonymously or not.

        Record what? Where is Pickens presenting any recorded information here? Hell, I can't even find a sou

        • by Xest (935314)

          "I don't care if he has a cellphone. Other news sources are reporting allegations of espionage from the Peace Corp."

          Not a comment on your point or the rest of your post, but just out of intrigue, what the fuck kind of information could Kazakhstan actually have that's worth a Peace Corps member stealing?

          • by marnues (906739)
            Kazakhstan, the second largest SSR in the former USSR, was the location of many nuclear weapons, military facilities, and space launches. Russia demanded as much back as possible, but certainly some things were "lost" in the shuffle.
            • by Xest (935314)

              Agreed, but is there any reason they'd use the peace corps to commit espionage here, rather than professional spies?

              Paranoid countries tend to be highly paranoid about NGOs, not least Russia itself, if you're going to spy on a paranoid country then an NGO is perhaps the least sensible place to stick your spy.

          • Unless the present administration wants to destroy the Peace Corps, spying is not an option. I spent 10 years in the Marine Corps. Later, I then wanted to join the Peace Corps. My friends were all sure that I was trying to get into the CIA. They said that the questions ask them for my background check were really deep and detailed. If you have ever been in military intelligence or the FBI you are not even eligible for Peace Corps service. I was accepted into the Peace Corps and I spent three years in the Iv
      • by Idimmu Xul (204345) on Monday December 19, 2011 @10:19AM (#38423424) Homepage Journal

        This lack of professionalism can cost people their job. Here's an article about a 9 year old 'wrongfully' suspended for saying a teacher was 'cute'.

        http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/05/student-9-years-old-suspended-for-sexual-harassment_n_1129683.html [huffingtonpost.com]

        Following the social and Internet outcry over such an obscene misjudgement by the Principal, here's the follow up piece where he was forced to retire over the situation.

        http://usnews.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/12/07/9277654-principal-forced-out-over-9-year-olds-sexual-harassment-suspension [msn.com]

        And here's the real story, where the kid in question has a history of bad behaviour, including racism and the actual suspension was the consequence of a series of incidents, and the kid never used the word cute anyway as originally reported

        http://www.wsoctv.com/download/2011/1205/29926822.pdf [wsoctv.com]

        It's not about embracing technology, it's about all the pieces to the puzzle being reported, rather than skipping half the story and being less than truthful about the other half.

        Rushing out 'facts' out of context is not good journalism, regardless of medium.

        • by Kjella (173770)

          Of course, but there's no such thing as perfect journalism. Reporting just one side of the story is wrong, so is giving equal time to flat-earthers and round-earthers, nobody is perfectly without bias and their own point of view, nobody knows for a fact that there's no more facts they should have had or maybe breaking the news is necessary to get attention to the case before you'll get the rest of the story. For example in the case you quote the school might very well have stonewalled citing student confide

        • And here's the real story, where the kid in question has a history of bad behaviour, including racism and the actual suspension was the consequence of a series of incidents, and the kid never used the word cute anyway as originally reported

          He's African American, and he called other African American kids "niggers". I don't think that counts as being racist, just being a dick. He said, "she is fine" in a loud suggestive manner about a female staff member (according to a witness). Please note, I'm not defending his behavior, I just don't want it to appear a bigger deal than it really is. And you're right, I almost feel sorry for the Principal. By law, employers have to treat potential incidents of sexual harassment very seriously.

          But then, the

    • by poity (465672)

      Perhaps the oft-expressed "Occam's Razor" is as relevant here as it was in those stories whose uncorroborated evidence pointed to US misdeed (Stuxnet stories for example [slashdot.org])? Between Russian interference as suggested by the evidence in this story, and an even more complex US misinformation campaign to damage Russia, which is the more likely? Or is Occam's Razor only relevant to stories whose evidence show the US in a bad light, and coincidentally breaks down for those whose evidence points to an adversary of t

      • While it does nothing against the possibility that the allegedly US cables are, in fact, forgeries by some third party, Kazakhstan seems like an odd place for the US to risk local relations in order to smear Russia(it's not as though there aren't plenty of other options, of varying degrees of truth, available). Our options for things like supply routes and airbases in the region are tepid to say the least and Kazakhstan is one of the countries we've been trying to butter up for that sort of access, along wi
    • by Xest (935314)

      "Well, no wonder news reporting is in such a sorry pathetic state these days."

      Let's not be too hard on the guy, at least he's trying. What he's done is still far better than what most journalists do nowadays, and that's just outright make shit up without even bothering with the whole investigative bit, citing quotes from their "source who wished to remain anonymous".

      I'm not overly familiar with the NY Times, but even some of the UK's better publications like The Guardian have run the odd article that was ba

    • Getting information out of the hard corners of the world is difficult. Reporters would rather be trashing a civilized society than go some place where they could get killed! That's just the sorry fact of journalism. Look at the number of women reporters who were sexually assaulted in Egypt during the "Arab Spring". Now go somewhere the government really hates you (because you are a westerner, or worse yet - an American)!

      Truth be told, he should have come with better sourcing; but the story does match up

    • by flyingsquid (813711) on Monday December 19, 2011 @04:09PM (#38426238)

      I'm not saying you are wrong with this information, what I'm saying is that the NY Times wouldn't run this story unless they did due diligence to be completely sure they are 100% right because they are held to journalistic standards. As a blogger or armchair Wikileaks reader, you have nothing to lose by publishing this under your pseudo-name online. "Oh, maybe I'll try my hand at investigative journalism today." But let's face it, you get this wrong and you lose nothing. A journalist gets this wrong and they should lose their job and be blacklisted. And that's how news sources work.

      Just like the New York Times did their homework before running those stories saying that Iraq had WMDs... we all remember how well that one worked out, don't we? That's arguably the single biggest journalistic cock-up in the past twenty years. Judith Miller got too close to her White House sources and repeated their "evidence" without doing her homework and checking the facts. When we most needed the Times to be on top of things- to provide a objective check on the White House's arguments for invading Iraq- they ended up parroting the White House's propaganda and helped persuade the nation to send our army into the biggest military disaster since Vietnam.

      As far as what this guy has done reporting on the situation in Kazakhstan, he's gone through Wikileaks and reported what diplomats are saying in these cables... how, precisely, does this differ from what the Times and other news information outlets were doing with the Wikileaks cables? Were they calling up and diplomats and saying, "excuse me, I'd like to fact check something... did you or did you not say that Russian prime minister Medvedev was 'Robin to Putin's Batman?'" As far as I know, they just read through the cables and reported what was written there.

    • by gambino21 (809810)

      I'm not saying you are wrong with this information, what I'm saying is that the NY Times wouldn't run this story unless they did due diligence to be completely sure they are 100% right because they are held to journalistic standards.

      I was agreeing with you up until this sentence. Unfortunately the NYT and most other mainstream media outlets do not follow good journalistic standards. Sure, there are a few good journalists who actually investigate, but the majority of the NYT is just regurgitated google combined with quotes from anonymous government sources.

    • by shiftless (410350)

      So basically you're just pissed because he used the word "journalism" for what he did, in the same way that insecure engineers always have to chime in pointing out loudly for everyone to see that THIS person is NOT properly called an engineer because he doesn't satisfy requirements X, Y, or Z.

      Obviously you consider yourself one hell of a journalist, or at least a "proper" one, or have close ties to this field, or you wouldn't have felt so moved to immediately explain in the first post how badly this news ar

  • wikileaks was being used as a source, no different than a dude in a bar talking, or a written report. Another example of pretending "on the internet" means we have to pretend its all different.
    An investigative journalism tool would be something like "google docs word processor" to be able to write anywhere you've got a working web browser, or using a recent gen ipod touch (only recent ones have a mic) as a portable, ubiquitous, semi-discrete audio recorder (professor will notice and complain if you haul in

  • that this comment, on /. Kazakhstan story ony days earlier, was modded "-1: Troll": on Kazakh practices with foreign nationals [slashdot.org] This story seems to provide an eerie confirmation....
  • Unfortunately the US government has ignored the founders intended feedback loop "For the People By the People" Obama has even claimed there is a deep flaw in the founder documents http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NW-e7z7S6VI [youtube.com] (i.e. Declaration of Independence [spirit and intent of all valid US law], U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights) though I haven't heard what it is he thinks is the flaw, I suspect the flaw is not the founder docs, but the recent and current government failure to fully understand and upho

    • by Zironic (1112127)

      Well, from what Obama says in the video. It appears to me it is an out of context quote that addresses the failure of the constitution to properly uphold that second sentence:

      "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

      After all, it wasn't until 1865, 89 years after those words were written that those rights were granted to non-whites and it w

  • The Internet is the perfect system for spreading disinformation and lies. Opinions become facts and conspiracy theories replace reality. A well meaning person can setup a website discussion board that does nothing but turn into an echo chamber for those already who have already made up their mind about what is fact and their contributions just reinforce their beliefs with congratulating each other on their insight and forthrightness. A relatively normal person can setup and operate multiple sites that whil
    • by Anonymous Coward

      A well meaning person can setup a website discussion board that does nothing but turn into an echo chamber for those already who have already made up their mind about what is fact and their contributions just reinforce their beliefs with congratulating each other on their insight and forthrightness.

      This is a very good point you made and I fully agree.. I'll tweet it out so others in my group can see it.

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