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The Proposition Raised by WikiLeaks
- How Should Investigative Reporting Look in the Net Age? -

Mikihito Tanaka
Associate Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

Journalism and WikiLeaks

Journalism activities are driven by norm, whereby action should be undertaken associated with people's right to know. But even though we simply say right to know, there is a significant difference between want-to-know information and need-to-know information, indicated in the single term right to know. The latter can probably be rephrased as follows:
What are the issues (agenda) that today's society needs to discuss for a better society in the future?

Probing this agenda and revealing it to society is one of the raisons d'棚tre of journalism. In this sense, investigative reporting is said to be the quintessence of journalism.

Investigative reporting is costly, however, while the amount of business it generates is small and unprofitable. The history of journalism can be said to be the history of the issue of how to conduct investigative reporting in a sustainable business system of Journalism.

Media companies proclaiming to be focused on journalism have sought answers to this issue; for example, by selling information on the economy to generate profits, and using the capital to pursue political issues. With this system, while there was a problem with the journalists setting up the social agenda unilaterally (= agenda setting), it did, on the whole, function under the autonomous norm of the journalists.

However, with the change in alignment brought about by internet communication technology (ICT) which spread from the end of the 20th century, the system has begun to sway.

WikiLeaks is regarded as having had a crucial impact on this confusion; specifically, the disclosure of video footage showing collateral shootings by US forces in Iraq and the international besiegement against Julian Assange. The world's media in 2010 were alive with the topic of WikiLeaks.

Leaked information, as material that is need-to-know information, is no longer something that a journalist, as an information professional, either receives or unearths from a whistle blower, but it has become something that is expose directly in the face of the general public.

WikiLeaks and Wikipedia

People who hear the term WikiLeaks for the first time often confuse it with Wikipedia. The partial match in their names is only because both of them use Wiki, a system that allows the free editing of information on the web. In essence, however, they are completely different.

But here again, if you take a look at both WikiLeaks and Wikipedia, sticking with the common term of Wiki, a totally different scene appears.

Wikipedia is now widely known as a free web encyclopedia that is created by everyone, but its predecessor, Nupedia, was built on a "peer review"-based system, like those adopted for academic journals. The fact that people edit the information on the web and that it is available for everyone to see remains the same with Wikipedia today, but with Nupedia, each article was written by professionals and reviewed and checked by other professionals before it was disclosed to the public. This is a system that concentrates expert intelligence, like the system employed in creating an ordinary encyclopedia.

At the end of the day, however, the web society has selected a system of bringing together the intelligence of numerous laypeople, rather than a few experts, to create an encyclopedia that is free and contains far richer information: Wikipedia, which is based on collective intelligence. In other words, the flow from Nupedia to Wikipedia is a change from expert intelligence to collective intelligence, signifying a change in how information is amassed typically in the ICT age.

From agenda setting to agenda building

What is interesting is that the new structure for the disclosure of leaked information considered to be important news on the ICT and presenting it to society, which was set on fire by WikiLeaks, is apparently slowly being directed in exactly the opposite direction.

WikiLeaks, in its initial stages, gave the impression that once the leaked information was made public, the collective intelligence would verify it. However, with the disclosure of confidential information and the possibility of many uninvolved people being exposed to danger starting to be raised and criticized, WikiLeaks has begun implementing a safe and orderly system of posting leaked information, and the disclosure of information only after it has verified its authenticity. At the same time, it has started to entrust important information to existing media, such as The Guardian in the UK, which possess human, financial and social network capabilities.

Information can be used as a weapon against power, but information has a power of its own. As the activities of WikiLeaks have become recognized in society, it has become self-conscious and circumspect on this point.

A birds' eye view will indicate that entrusting information from collective intelligence to expert intelligence leads to a movement of creation by web society and journalists to build an agenda cooperatively (=agenda building). This marks the start of a new era that differs from the era when journalists were free to primarily settle the agenda.

Journalism in the age of agenda building

WikiLeaks only provides materials to be used for news. If it is information whose meaning to society is clear, as was the case with the Senkaku video, it will have sufficient social impact on its own. However, much of the buried information will only be worth being questioned in society after it has been vetted by a steady process to verify fundamental questions - what kind of meaning does it have, and is it true to begin with?

Of course, it is easy to imagine these functions being taken up by collective intelligence. But even with the current collective intelligence, it is expected that the information released by WikiLeaks will not be able to settle the social agenda in a number of aspects.

For example, where there is leaked information concerning the powers of either the government or companies, if there is a need to strengthen its credibility with new information in the process of its verification, it will become necessary to cite the individual or organization that gives credence to the information (*1). However, this will give the powers an indicator for attack. (For example, from the powers' side, there are methods such as targeting a prominent figure inside the collective intelligence for national policy investigation or intimidation lawsuits (*2), or other methods.)

The results of a large amount of historical investigative reporting reported as scoops that brought about changes in society were achieved by scores of journalists running around gathering concealed supporting information (much of this information has still not yet been electronically processed). In some cases, it took years of investigation to obtain. The costs of this verification work can sometimes run into several tens of millions or even some hundreds of millions of yen.

When verification requiring such substantial costs arises, there is a possibility that collective intelligence, based on voluntary service and with easy to warm but easy to cool down characteristics, may not be able to cover all the investigation costs.

*1 This can easily be imagined for a case where interviews are conducted of the person involved to corroborate the leaked information. When both the whistle-blower and the person involved remain anonymous, the credibility of the information is extremely low.

*2 Intimidation lawsuits (SLAPP, Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) are lawsuits filed for the purpose of intimidating the defendant. For the side filing the lawsuit, this has the effect of suggesting to society that the reported article is not true (even if the facts are true), while at the same time flooding the defendant with work to respond to the trial, effectively making it impossible to pursue the issue. There are many cases, even in Japan, where journalists who have written articles that have opposed the interests of a company have been faced with lawsuits. It can be said that intimidation lawsuits are part of daily life in the world of journalism. In existing mass media organizations, the legal division or appointed legal counsel will respond to these matters, leaving the journalist free to remain outside the lawsuit, and allowing him or her to re-respond in further articles.

Another threat: Demand Media

Another threat that is at exactly the opposite end of what has been delivered by WikiLeaks, and which could become the eye of another storm in a sense, is the activities of Demand Media in the United States.

What Demand Media provides, in simple terms, is a structure for using a program to detect what is being searched frequently on the web, and articles designed to cover this subject are produced by writers and uploaded onto the web. It is a system that specializes in responding to people's want-to-know information.

By doing this, it is possible to create content that is displayed for a long period of time in search results. This content, with its promised popularity and long shelf life, is able to obtain advertising income from its pages. Demand Media is growing rapidly using this system, and its shares are expected to be listed on the market around the time this article is published.

However, the journalistic risk of this method is also probably clear. Journalism that steers society must look toward the path down which society is heading. Responding to people's desire to know is backward-facing journalism, which merely furthers the current social trends or only takes up issues that are already known. It does not bring up unknown issues, but instead carries the risk of becoming the type of journalism that indulges the public.

There are already numerous objections to the method employed by Demand Media in the United States. Although responding to the desire to know cannot be avoided in terms of the economic principles of journalism, it is felt that it is far too blatant and has overstepped the norm.

Things that support journalism in the web age

Information created by the methods used by Demand Media is often compared to fast food such as hamburgers. In contrast to slow journalism, where the news is created carefully as a result of expenditure, fast journalism quickly satisfies the desires of people for the moment.

It may be that the function of satisfying the desire to know celebrity gossip and information on sports, which was conventionally provided by traditional media, will be taken on by this fast journalism.

But what about slow journalism, which takes on investigative reporting?

The media in our country is further losing its role in terms of investigative reporting. Regrettably, society has not been able to discover a system to support the cost of slow journalism in the future as well.

Just as a restaurant chain operates both a high-class restaurant and a fast food outlet, a system that fuses both slow and fast journalism together is imaginable, and there are portal sites that can be seen as such a budding system. However, none of them have the capacity to incur costs to take on investigative reporting.

Balancing norm and desire or slow and fast to create a sustainable journalism system is a task for society going forward. In this period of transition, we need to be conscious of the differentiation between want-to-know information and need-to-know information, and we must maintain the conscience to pay for the value of need-to-know information.

Only when such a society has been achieved will the information materials that reach us through sites such as WikiLeaks be formed into a social agenda by the collaboration of collective intelligence and expert intelligence.

Mikihito Tanaka
Associate Professor (Journalism Course), Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University.

Graduated from the Division of Natural Sciences, College of Liberal Arts, International Christian University, Tokyo. Completed a doctoral course at the Graduate School of Tokyo University and received a Ph.D. Following a post-doctoral position in a national institute and work as a visiting assistant for the Master of Arts Program for Journalist Education in Science and Technology at Waseda University, currently holds the position of Associate Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University. Conducts exercises and research related to issues in science and technology, and regarding journalism and the web, in the Journalism Course at the Graduate School of Political Science. Currently conducting a joint study together with Europe and the USA researchers regarding the Sustainable Business Model for Journalism. Recent works include iPS Cells, How Much Can Humans Regenerate? [iPS saibo, hitowa dokomade saisei dekiruka?].