Press release

SPJ statement on ethical journalism in response to latest WikiLeaks release

INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists is weighing in on the diplomatic, national security and journalistic fallout caused by WikiLeaks’ release of U.S. State Department cables. For nearly a week, SPJ leaders have been closely reviewing and intensely discussing the myriad issues raised by the release.

What has become clear is that forming a single opinion about the actions of WikiLeaks, the need for information, and balancing the public’s right to know with protecting national security is exceedingly difficult. SPJ leaders and committees have discussed not only the action of WikiLeaks and its fallout, but even more fundamental issues: Is this journalism, is it responsible and have news organizations responded ethically?

“It's not about who does the publishing.” SPJ President Hagit Limor said. [Read her full statement.] “It's about the decision-making that leads to publication. The WikiLeaks release reminds all who disseminate information that we must verify and test for accuracy, provide context via other sources, and weigh the potential harm before deciding whether to publish.”

Whether WikiLeaks acted responsibly, ethically or in the public interest is debatable, as our own internal discussions have shown. People on the outside, including elected members of Congress and Obama administration officials, have sharply criticized the release – even calling WikiLeaks and the suspected person responsible for the leak treasonous. It is not SPJ’s or journalists’ role to defend or denounce such positions.

On the question of “Is WikiLeaks journalism?” there is no single consensus among Society leaders. Arguments exist on both sides. SPJ has historically stayed away from defining what is and is not “journalism,” as not everything fits into a descriptive box. The more important question is: If the information was truthful and accurate, was there a compelling need to reveal it? And, very critically, was it done ethically?

The SPJ Code of Ethics calls on journalists and news outlets to “Seek Truth and Report It.” An important point under that heading says journalists should:

* Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection.

However, that does not mean all information a government (the U.S. or otherwise) has is open to public inspection. There is certainly a need to protect national security and diplomatic interests.

Another point in the SPJ Code of Ethics balances the pursuit of truth, and that is urging journalists to “Minimize Harm.” Under this point journalists should remember:

* Pursuit of news is not a license for arrogance.

There is no indication that the news organizations that received early access to the cables acted unethically. The New York Times and The Guardian, among others, appear to have done their journalistic purpose: verify the information, act responsibly, minimize harm by redacting certain information, and inform the affected parties of the impending publication.

Whether the information was necessary or essential to release is another issue. If laws were broken in obtaining it, then the legal process will move forward. WikiLeaks’ true intentions are unclear. But in the case of established news outlets receiving the information and providing context and verification, it appears responsible, ethical journalism prevailed.