Journalism is under attack. The tensions between the responsibilities of journalists and the prerogatives of the government when dealing with issues of national security are exacerbated by a body politic fortified by partisan certitude, by technology designed to ferret out confidential sources, and by nation-states with unknown agendas.
The U.S. government suffers from significant and damaging disclosures of classified information, and the secrecy bureaucracy is struggling to adapt to a world where the locus of control over national security information is distributed, and where secrets themselves are an increasingly perishable commodity. And whistleblowers find themselves in the most precarious state of all. There is no guidebook for them; there are few means for them to convey their concerns responsibly without attracting a partisan following that can diminish or cast aspersions on their own motives and efforts.
This conference hopes to meaningfully advance the understanding of four broad challenges, using the conference as a point of departure to inject fresh thinking about these critical issues into the public sphere.
The first issue involves the responsible reporting of national security crises: while such events are inherently newsworthy, journalists must grapple with the troubling reality, born out by experience and by scholarship on how audiences consume information, that such reporting can fuel more terrorist attacks by stoking public fear and providing the terrorists with the kind of visibility they seek for their cause. Independent media coverage of their actions can have a reinforcing impact on terrorists’ violent narratives while glorifying the image of those in charge.
The second topic for discussion is how best to ensure the physical and legal safety of journalists, as well as the integrity of the constitutionally protected freedom of the press. Journalists can face, easily, and without consequence for the perpetrators, malevolent online harassment campaigns, hate-based attacks, or related physical threats or intimidation, due to their race, religion, or nationality, and such conduct can affect the coverage of national security matters, whether directly or indirectly. Because newsroom budgets have been pared down, reporters are often sent into disaster zones and denied areas without back-up. The best efforts to protect critical sources can now be bypassed using communications metadata to identify sources who may be reluctant to reveal their communications with the media.
Third: the re-publishing of unauthorized disclosures of classified information by WikiLeaks or other such third-party, quasi-journalistic outlets, or independent platforms with cultures of disclosure that differ from the established media’s formal processes and well-considered habits. In such cases, the disclosed information usually remains classified, and intelligence agencies are unlikely to acknowledge whether the leaks are based on bona fide classified documents regardless of independent coverage. When dealing with these disclosures, how should news organizations that operate according to more conventional ethical codes disseminate such information?
The fourth challenge relates to the advent of “fake news” and its use as a weapon of asymmetric warfare. It has become a national security threat. Our recent electoral experience with foreign disinformation raises the question of the responsibilities vested in journalists, private firms, and the government to protect democracy from foreign political subversion through the dissemination of “fake news” intended to affect political discourse or undermine national security. The field is professionally unprepared for this new reality.
This two-day, workshop-style conference consisting of experts from such diverse fields as the law, academia, the media, the national security establishment, and the whistleblowing community, will explore these complex legal and ethical problems through a series of moderated sessions.
The objective is to foster a constructive, interdisciplinary dialogue among people who do not often talk with one another and to provide all participants with a more nuanced appreciation of the issues that lie at the intersection of journalism and national security. We also hope to provide solutions, even temporary ones, to the problems we’ve identified.
This event is co-sponsored by the Annenberg School for Communication (ASC), the Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication at ASC, the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and the law firm of Miller & Chevalier.