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Whistleblowing, Persecuted Journalists, and Duty Over Self

by on November 25, 2016

Edward Snowden unleashed thousands of classified documents from the NSA in 2013 and the journalists who aided the release of the secrets came under fire. Glenn Greenwald, reporter for The Guardian, has been unable to return to the United States in fear that he would be thrown in jail. Snowden is known as a whistleblower, a person who exposes information that points toward illegal, unethical, or incorrect behavior of an organization.

Greenwald has been heralded as a hero for the field of journalism by some publications (Bill Keller, NYT) and denounced as a traitor by many Americans. Journalists are told that they are trusted by the public to become a watchdog for the government and the powerful; yet, many times when journalists have been performing this duty, they have been criticized and even persecuted. The major issue here is that journalists are faced with the dilemma of whether to act as a watchdog or to face the consequences of living in “exile” (like Greenwald) and being charged with treason, if you report from Australia. U.S. reporters are seeing more and more heightened restrictions on their freedom of press. President Obama has reportedly persecuted more whistleblowers than all previous presidents combined and has clamped down on journalists in recent years.

The NSA has reportedly been spying on journalists since 2002 to ensure that they do not report of mass surveillance programs. Targeting media outlets and groups of journalists, the NSA has made it clear that they are targeting and collecting information on journalists like James Rosen. In another instance, the Pentagon has been accused of “smearing” USA Today reporters who were investigating Pentagon Propaganda. Beside the fact that the government wants journalists to reveal their sources, or the whistleblower in most cases, the questions begin to come up about your duty as a journalist.

Do you risk your privacy and that of your family to expose government secrets? How far are you willing to go for the truth? Would you risk having to stay out of the United States in fear of your own persecution?

Though the revelations about government surveillance brought about by Snowden have brought the topic to the forefront of the news, many citizens are unaware of who Snowden is and what exactly he released to the public. Another question to ask, is it worth releasing this sensitive information if people just aren’t going to listen? Your duty is to the public, but what if they simply don’t care? Do you still release the information because “it’s the right thing to do”? Or, is it not worth ruining your life for some bits of information that may not even have an effect on the public?


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  1. These are difficult questions you’re asking but one’s that can be answered over time as you come to define yourself as journalist, through decisions and mistakes you make. In terms of what is the right thing to do, that’s a question of your own morality and values in relation to those of the public. If you feel that information is pertinent to the people then by all means contextualize and give them that information. The SPJ Code of Ethics does a good job of giving journalists a baseline by which they can refer to to make responsible, ethical decisions but at the end of the day you have to go with your gut. What it comes down to ultimately is how seriously you take your role as a watchdog in society, similar to any other profession you may take on. If you were a doctor, would you go to an Ebola affected area to treat patients if you knew that you could save at least one person’s life? If you were a lawyer, would you defend an accused murderer if you knew he was innocent, and you could acquit him? These are choices you have to make, they’re not easy choices but important ones. It’s important to remember that even if you think some people might not care about what you’re saying, there will always be at least one person who does, and usually that one person is not alone. Staying true to the truth, that’s the most important thing, because then at least you know you’ve done your job.

  2. The conflicts that journalists must deal with when reporting on whistleblowers are numerous. People like Glen Greenwald have certainly made a lot of sacrifices in order to publish information concerning the government, and it is concerning that in reporting on issues like these, journalists can become targets of spying and information collection. There are so many factors to weigh when making a decision about whether or not to publish sensitive information. Journalists have to consider the law and government, themselves and their families, as well as their duties as a reporter. It reminds me of something we say in class a lot, that sometimes no matter what decision you make, you don’t feel great about it. I think this would definitely apply to this ethical dilemma. Do you sacrifice your own safety and your family’s safety to publish the story? Do you choose not to publish, and then have to live with the knowledge that you withheld such important information from the public? You also raise an interesting point about how sometimes the public doesn’t pay attention to stories like this. In that case, is the journalist’s work wasted? I don’t think so. Like the comment above says, I think as a journalist you need to stick to the pursuit of the truth, and in doing so, make the personal ethical decision that you’ll be able to live with. The more I’ve been in this class, the more I’ve understood how rare it is to ever walk away from an ethical choice feeling completely at peace.

  3. griffc permalink

    I feel like if you are dedicated to being the best journalist you can possibly be, you have to sometimes take the risk in reporting news that may bring a dark cloud over your head. The SPJ Code of Ethics can be a baseline guide in making your ethical decision, but at the end of the day, it’s the individual’s own decision. If something falls in your lap that endangers national security in relation to foreign nations, that could be something you sit on. But at the same time, it’s news and journalists have a duty to report the news. It’s a case by case basis really. Even the opinions of most Americans will differ on this subject. Some hope that journalists would never hide anything from them and report on any ground breaking news that comes their way; others would be happy to kept in the dark if it means that their government and their country stay a little safer in terms of their closed door happenings. It’s an intriguing subject to dive into because there really isn’t a correct answer.

  4. As a journalist, you’re never going to make everyone completely happy with your reporting. Whether it be your editor, country, or family there is always going to be someone that disagrees or thinks it could’ve been done differently. Personally, I feel like if you come across something that has the potential to impact the daily lives of people it is your journalistic duty to report it. Sure, a lot of people may not care about the story but that is up to them to decide. Snowden and Greenwald knew that by releasing this information that their very way of life would be threatened and as a journalist you need to be prepared for that. The ethical dilemmas we’ve discussed in class go way beyond anything I ever thought I’d encounter but as it comes to a close I’ve realized the importance of a moral compass. At the end of the day, you’re the one who makes the final decision on whether or not to go through with the story and face the consequences that follow. If you uncover something and don’t report it are you going to be able to sleep at night? What’s the point of becoming a journalist if the second something becomes hard or scary you put your tail between your legs?

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