We live in a very data-rich era. And that means fantastic opportunities for journalism. But can journalism rise to the occasion?
I refer to the WikiLeaks release of a trove of 92,000 U.S. documents detailing efforts of the U.S. Army and Special Forces in the war in Afghanistan, published simultaneously with interpretive accounts from the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel. As soon as this went up, you could feel the ground shifting under the media and governments: their traditional relationships were suddenly upended by this new architecture of information flows. From anonymous leakers to seemingly invulnerable transnational secret-exposing organization to journalists and to the public.
To those who say “there’s nothing new here,” I suppose that’s right in the general sense. But if you read some of these documents (or their excerpts), I don’t think they are so easily dismissed as old news. They paint a vivid picture of a daily reality that is absurdly complex, baffling and possibly hopeless. The sensation you get from reading through them is different than if you just read the words “complex, baffling and hopeless.” More different than if you read a policy paper on it. And more different still than if you watch the Pentagon’s daily briefings. There’s no substitute for primary sources, and the volume of information and breadth of topics creates an overwhelming sense of the drift of the war effort.
Does this represent an emergent form of journalism? C.W. Anderson argues that it does:
This captures the essence of the question I was trying to get at in the fifth point of yesterday’s post (“journalism in the era of big data”). I noted the similarities between “War Logs” and last week’s big bombshell, “Top Secret America.” The essence of the similarity, I said, was that they were based on reams of data, which, in sum, might not tell us anything shockingly new but that brought home, in Ryan Sholin’s excellent phrase, “the weight of failure.” And this gets me excited because I think it represents something new in journalism, or something old-enough-to-new: a focus on the aggregation of a million “on the ground reports” that might sometimes get us closer to the truth than three well placed sources over a nice off-the-record dinner.
Going forward, we’re going to get more info-troves like this one. They will sit out there on the web and in our mental landscapes: 92,000 documents here, 1.3 million data points there, saying something important. And some will so overwhelmingly point in one direction that merely posting them will accomplish the basic journalistic goal of conveying something new (or at least something people haven’t seen before). And that should influence the public debate.
However, a lot of data – most of it, really – is not nearly as clear-cut as the Afghanistan reports. It’s often ambiguous and contradictory on the surface, with the alarming pattern one or two levels down. Or an apparently scoop-worthy data point may turn out to mean something entirely different in light of a deeper understanding. To find its true value you need to interpret, provide context. And then what if the interpretation is skewed? As Marc Lynch writes, there was a somewhat similar data dump of Saddam-era Iraqi documents during the Bush administration:
This use of the WikiLeaks documents brings back some old memories, of a long time ago (March 2006) in a galaxy far far away when the Pentagon posted a massive set of captured Iraqi documents on the internet without context. Analysts dived into them, mostly searching for a smoking gun on Iraqi WMD or ties to al-Qaeda. The right-wing blogs and magazines ran with a series of breathless announcements that something had been found proving one case or another. Each finding would dissolve when put into context or subjected to scrutiny, and at the end it only further confirmed the consensus (outside of the fever swamps, at least) that there had been no significant ties between Saddam and al-Qaeda. But the cumulative effect of each “revelation”, even if subsequently discredited, probably fueled the conviction that such ties had existed and did help maintain support for the Iraq war among the faithful.
A huge cache of data, especially documents (each a story in itself), will invariably spawn competing “narratives” about its meaning, especially in an era when old media models of authority are breaking down. Some of these narratives will be lies. And sometimes the truths will simply be glossed over or forgotten.
That’s why this is a great moment for journalism, and also a perilous one. Anderson continues:
“[F]inding something new” (being there, being at dinner, getting the source to say something we didn’t know before) may not always be as important as finding the pattern in what is there already.
This is a variation on a basic idea of investigative journalism that I wrote about recently: “In government, the real scandal is usually not what’s illegal, but legal and routine: the day-to-day status quo that, when examined closely by fresh eyes, turns out to be something monstrous.” (This approach takes a backseat to the “get people indicted” school of investigations – but that may be changing, and it ought to.) Certainly, the Afghan documents are monstrous enough on their own. But often it’s not enough to post the data and let it speak for itself: it must be marshaled in service to a story, an argument. That’s what historians do; journalists now have ever-greater opportunities to do the same.