On Tuesday night, a Salt Lake City-based TV news station aired a segment about MormonLeaks, “The men of MormonLeaks — Why they do it and what they’re after.” Both Ryan McKnight and Ethan Dodge were interviewed for the piece, as was a BYU journalism professor. During the segment, a point came up that reminded me of a conversation I had a couple weeks ago. McKnight adamantly declared himself a journalist, but recognized there are those that feel otherwise. I happen to be one of those, and I’m interested to hear the thoughts of the Wheat and Tares community.
In an extended interview posted after the segment aired, McKnight explained,
[11:59] Look, as far as, you know, what percentage we meet up to the traditional definition of journalism, I have no idea. I’ve never attempted to sort of analyze, you know, how closely we fit sort of that traditional definition. But I would say that–I would remind people that the word journalist to me is a very broad term, right? When people hear journalist they think reporter, like yourself, or they think like a newspaper reporter, like Peggy Stack or something like that, which are obvious journalists. But I think that there’s other kinds of journalists out there, and there’s journalists that fill different types of roles. And we call ourselves journalists, we claim to be, you know, we put a stake in the sand and call ourselves journalists. And what we do is we curate documents that have public interest, okay? And, you know, that is a service within the world of journalism.
So McKnight pretty much lays out the problem. There is a “traditional” definition of journalism, and then there’s the definition of journalism he’s using, which is something else.
MormonLeaks is journalism
The advent of the internet has allowed the public to access and distribute news directly, outside the normal filters of traditional journalism. In the past several decades, individuals and independent organizations have taken on roles previously exclusive to professional journalists. A prime example is the Drudge Report, which apparently began in the 1990s as an email-newsletter gossip column by the manager of a gift shop, but gained in popularity when it began to break major news stories before traditional news outlets. People have attempted to describe this type of journalism in many ways, one being citizen journalism which has a fairly broad definition.
Citizen journalism refers to the reporting of news events by members of the public using the Internet to spread the information. Citizen journalism can be a simple reporting of facts and news that is largely ignored by large media companies. It is easily spread through personal websites, blogs, microblogs, social media and so on. Some types of citizen journalism also act as a check on the reporting of larger news outlets by providing alternative analysis.
Another label is participatory journalism, which plays off the idea of “audience participation.” The problem? It’s unclear where to draw the line. Is this blog post citizen journalism? Is someone uploading their personal video of a political rally to social media citizen journalism? Are discussions on Reddit citizen journalism? There could be legitimate cases for each. But when we start getting such a broad definition, self-identifying as a “citizen journalist” begins to lose significance.
Another sticky point is that MormonLeaks isn’t really reporting news. The MormonLeaks website says, “The organization provides sources and whistleblowers the technical ability to anonymously submit sensitive documents for use by professional and citizen journalists for starting and expanding news reporting, public commentary, and criticism related to Mormonism.” According to that description, the site is providing source material so other people can comb through the raw data and report on noteworthy bits. As their lawyer stated, they are a “journalistic resource”–a useful trove of potentially newsworthy information waiting for journalists to mine. So, if the site MormonLeaks isn’t even claiming to be journalism, it must not be journalism, right? Well…
Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, wrote in a new Times Magazine articl[e] that, in working with Assange to publish revelations from WikiLeaks’ cache of documents, he always considered him a source, not a collaborator – or a journalist. But there is no clear definition of the terms “journalist” or “journalism.” The best we have comes from laws and proposed legislation which protect reporters from being forced to divulge confidential sources in court. In crafting those shield laws, legislators have had to grapple with the nebulousness of the profession to determine who and what must be protected, and why.
Based on the wording of many of these statutes, Assange fits the definition of a journalist, and what WikiLeaks does qualifies as journalism.
In fact, Julian Assange has been awarded honors reserved for journalists. In 2011 he won the Martha Gellhorn prize for journalism. An article from The Guardian explained,
The annual prize is awarded to a journalist “whose work has penetrated the established version of events and told an unpalatable truth that exposes establishment propaganda, or ‘official drivel’, as Martha Gellhorn called it”.
Okay, so if we’ve just established that WikiLeaks falls under a legal definition of journalism, and if the founder of WikiLeaks is considered by many to be at least a type of a journalist, what’s my problem calling MormonLeaks journalism?
MormonLeaks is NOT journalism
In the interview excerpt above, McKnight mentioned a “traditional” definition of journalism. When I was taught journalism it was this more traditional version, what is usually associated with the journalism profession. For example, if we were talking Watergate, MormonLeaks would be equivalent to Deep Throat, NOT Woodward and Bernstein.
See, back in high school, I had an incredible journalism teacher. Other people thought she was awesome as well, which is why her death last year inspired a unique tribute from the The Salt Lake Tribune. Many professional journalists, her former students, talked about her influence in their lives. One was Fred Kempe who has worked as a foreign correspondent and bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. He summed it up nicely, “She mentored and inspired countless students with her kind soul, her demanding standards and her deep belief that great journalism lay at the heart of a free America.” Because of that teacher, my view of journalism is inexorably linked with certain standards, and that’s why I have such difficulty calling MormonLeaks journalism.
My issue is that I expect real journalists to adhere to a fairly standard code of ethics, like the one published by the Society for Professional Journalists. (In the TV interviews, the BYU journalism professor was referencing that code of ethics to make a similar point). As a matter of policy, MormonLeaks ignores certain types of journalistic standards.
- MormonLeaks does not “Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.” If MormonLeaks contacts individuals named in their leaks, they aren’t telling anyone about it, and they certainly aren’t publishing responses. That’s a job for someone else. For that matter, MormonLeaks rarely publishes comment from anybody — usually just the leaked document itself and their description. Their entire modus operandi is to sit and wait for people to hand them X and then turn around and pass X verbatim to the public. That’s their policy, little to no editorializing. And we have to take it on faith that their data is legitimate because, as a matter of policy, they will never provide information on how they’ve verified the information (like who they’ve consulted and their qualifications). For MormonLeaks, this is a matter of protecting people.
- MormonLeaks does not “Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.” The point of MormonLeaks is transparency–what people have the right to know, not what they need or even want to know. That’s why they have so many leaked documents that never make the news. If a document sheds light on the inner workings of the institutional church, it has met their publishing criteria. According to this policy, the information doesn’t have to be interesting or newsworthy in any way.
- MormonLeaks does not “Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.” When MormonLeaks announces a leak on social media, within the first few comments you’ll inevitably get, “Hey, can someone give me the TL:DR?” This is because their policy to limit “editorializing” often leads to disturbingly opaque press releases. Remember the MTC President rape case? The headline of the press release was, “MormonLeaks™ Releases Audio of Former Mormon Mission President Admitting to Inappropriate Interactions with Women.” Was this accurate? Yes. Did it tell people what they had a right to know? Yes (a guy is on record saying he did bad stuff when he was a church leader). Is it a gross oversimplification of the audio recording? Absolutely. See, you needed to click on the link and read the fine print to discover we’re about to listen to a woman confront a man who allegedly raped her.
MormonLeaks has been and will likely continue to be a valuable resource. They have already prompted useful public conversations several times within Mormonism. But please, please don’t ask me to call them journalists.
It seems a person’s opinion on whether MormonLeaks is journalism depends heavily on the definition they use. So what does the Wheat and Tares community think? How do you define journalism, and does MormonLeaks meet that criteria?