Wik­iLeaks’ expo­sure of thou­sands of leaked U.S. diplo­matic cables has thrust America’s for­eign policy and gov­ern­ment secrecy into the global spot­light. The media’s role in reporting on these sen­si­tive doc­u­ments — while also trying to bal­ance national secu­rity con­cerns — has sparked debate, as well. William Kirtz, asso­ciate pro­fessor in the School of Jour­nalism at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, exam­ines the poten­tial for future “doc­u­ment dumps” on the Internet and dis­cusses the chal­lenges jour­nal­ists face in the dig­ital age.

In the after­math of the Wik­iLeaks release of diplo­matic cables, do you think more gov­ern­ment secrets will be exposed, or will increased gov­ern­ment efforts to main­tain secrecy succeed?

More secrets will be exposed because the Internet makes it so easy to dis­sem­i­nate information—whether or not it harms national security.

What is your assess­ment of how the news orga­ni­za­tions that ini­tially received these doc­u­ments cov­ered this story?

The doc­u­ments were dis­trib­uted to a few leading tra­di­tional news out­lets, such as The New York Times, which redacted infor­ma­tion that might endanger people and pro­grams and dis­cussed what they were preparing to print with gov­ern­ment offi­cials. And in some cases, according to Times editor Bill Keller, mate­rial was deleted or mod­i­fied to address gov­ern­ment con­cerns. The danger is that some group without pro­fes­sional jour­nalism stan­dards will do an Internet “doc­u­ment dump” of infor­ma­tion that could indeed damage national security.

How has Wik­ileaks’ cov­erage by major news orga­ni­za­tions com­pared to the cov­erage of those who have leaked sen­si­tive mate­rial in the past?

The media cov­erage of Wik­iLeaks founder Julian Assange has detailed his legal prob­lems; their treat­ment of him has been much more crit­ical than that which Daniel Ells­berg received when he leaked the Pen­tagon Papers. This seems appro­priate; a source’s motive in dis­closing infor­ma­tion can be quite relevant.

In this new media age, what chal­lenges do jour­nal­ists face in reporting on gov­ern­ment secrecy and pre­serving national secu­rity?

Threats of pros­e­cu­tion under the vague and out­dated Espi­onage Act are a chal­lenge. So poten­tially is pro­posed leg­is­la­tion that would make it illegal to pub­lish the names of mil­i­tary or intel­li­gence com­mu­nity infor­mants. Increased use of sub­poena power to compel jour­nal­ists to dis­close con­fi­den­tial sources is another problem. Finally, the main­stream media’s ongoing finan­cial crisis may dis­suade news orga­ni­za­tions from starting and con­tin­uing the long and expen­sive battle to obtain infor­ma­tion that offi­cials want to keep secret — not out of national secu­rity con­cerns, but because it might embar­rass them polit­i­cally or personally.