By: Ed Zintel
When an otherwise ordinary guy like Edward Snowden becomes a household name overnight, you know that his story is about more than whether he’s a good guy or bad guy for leaking information of U.S. and British government surveillance programs to the press.
It’s also about whistle-blowers in our society – who may be breaking the law – and what their access to journalists should be.
Whether you view Snowden as a hero or as a traitor (Snowden has described himself as neither hero, nor traitor, but simply as an “American”), it brings into question where the line is drawn between the public’s right to know vs. national security interests. Interestingly, a recent USA Today/Pew Research poll found that – similar to the results of many polls released in the past few months – 49 percent thought the release of information served the public interest while 44 percent thought it harmed it.
So where do we, as journalists, draw the line?
Richard Benedetto, an adjunct professor of journalism at American University in Washington, D.C., and who was the White House correspondent and columnist for USA Today for some 25 years, told me the issue stems largely from the advent of “new media” as he calls it, the fact that social media dictates so much of how we cover the news today.
“Like everyone, I watched the whole Edward Snowden story unfold, and I think it’s problematic that news can now be distributed so quickly and largely without the filters we had in the past,” Benedetto said. “Now, newspapers cover the blogs and Twitter in an effort to keep up and it affects the discourse. What normally might not have been covered by mainstream media, today, because it’s on Twitter, it becomes news.”
Another question that comes into play here is the journalist’s obligation. It used to be that when journalists were provided sensitive information, they would question whether this was information that was absolutely necessary for the public to have, Benedetto said. Furthermore, he said, reporters used to have to “prove” that their resources were reliable.
“At USA Today, I recall having long, heavy discussions with our editors on whether to release certain information. It was like going before the board of review. And you had better be sure of (the solidness) of your sources.”
That would all result in no one questioning a reporter’s integrity, as has been so largely the case with Glenn Greenwald, the reporter from The Guardian who broke the Snowden story after Snowden leaked him the information, Benedetto added.
“It used to be that only those who had an ox to gore would question a reporter’s integrity,” Benedetto said. “The Nixon administration was a case in point. Nixon was always hiding behind national security.”
Benedetto, who taught a course on media credibility this summer, said polls show that the media is continuing to lose credibility with the public. He partially blames new media for that.
“The public tends to lump all of the media – traditional and new media – together, and they feel they’re all a bunch of b.s.’ers. With the way the new media works, getting in and out of stories so quickly and with less filters, it’s a dangerous time for journalism.