As 21st century reporters become increasingly confronted by issues regarding journalistic ethics, the newest generation of workers in this field will need to establish ways to face obstacles like WikiLeaks, whistleblowers, NSA surveillance and data mining.
At the University of Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics 2014 Conference on Surveillance, Security and Journalism Ethics, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau presented the keynote speech about Media Minefields: Journalism, National Security and the Right to Know.
“News organizations often think long and hard on whether the public’s right to know, in some cases, might overwrite somebody’s right to live,” Lichtblau said.
When it comes to issues of national security, he said publishing classified material has to be weighted between implications of the problem and the general public’s right to the information.
The first amendment gives publications like the New York Times the right to determine what deserves public attention, Lichtblau said.
“We have a long, proud tradition of a robust press of watching the watchdog and policing the police,” Lichtblau said. “We do not have an ‘official secrets act’ as many countries do, it is not illegal — despite what some people want you to believe — for the media to publish classified information. We still have the right and responsibility to do so.”
Stigmas about classified information can be largely attributed to the fact that there is an excessive amount of classified information, which comes from the simplistic classification process, he said.
For example, Lichtblau said he has recently done months of research for a book he is writing about Nazis. He said through his work thus far, he has sifted through many files at the National Archives that are decades old and still remain classified because of the CIA’s relationship to former Nazi soldiers during that time.
“These are files from the 1950s, some dating back to the late forties, that talk about the CIA’s role with Nazis and Nazi collaborators and yet those materials, 60 years later still remain classified,” Lichtblau said.
It is the media’s responsibility to push back on the government when documents are reclassified and investigate if there is any part of those documents that should be open to public scrutiny, he said.
When thinking about the stories released post-9/11, Lichtblau said to consider what kind of society the nation would have been if nothing was published about interrogation methods, drones and wire-tapping. These iconic stories define the past decade and would have never surfaced if the media had not pressured government officials to release this information, he said.
That does not mean that the press is ignorant about the implications releasing such information has on a source’s safety, he said. In such cases, he said the U.S. lacks laws that protect reporter and source confidentiality, especially when it is a reporter’s responsibility to protect their sources.
He said he acknowledges the media can never know with certainty what the exact implications a story may produce before running it, but the government can not determine that either.
However, it remains highly important for the press to maintain their ‘watchdog’ role in regards to national security, Lichtblau said. He said the best way ensure the public accepts that role is to maintain objectivity and integrity.
“The best way is to continue to do good journalism,” Lichtblau said.