Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia and its public face to most of the media, has declared that media organizations are missing out on the "opportunity of the century" by not conducting true investigative reporting into American surveillance practices, a debate kindled by information leaked by Edward Snowden.
This year was different: Wales used the opportunity to speak on privacy in the digital age, a topic inspired by the recent Snowden-led and Guardian-published revelations about the extent of online spying conducted by the United States National Security Agency, and the news media's reporting of the event, which he believes lacks depth, detail, and scope. The media, Wales believes, is not explaining these technical challenges to readers as it should.
Technical literacy is a hurdle that many people have not been able to jump over. In one of the simplest areas, using a password to secure an Internet account, many users persist with simple passwords such as "password", "123456", "12345678", or "abc123", despite ample evidence that these strings are easily hacked. So it is unsurprising that knowledge of more complex tools—like encryption and virtual private networks—is even less commonplace.
Wales claims that when the media receives a juicy yet complex technical topic like the Snowden extravaganza, its treatment tends to gravitate towards the easier, less expensive, more understandable, and more popular human interest stories. In the Snowden case-study used by Wales, the obvious diversions were Snowden's girlfriend, who happens to be a presentable former ballet dancer and a current member of an acrobatic show team, and his attempts to gain asylum in Latin America and Russia. These tendencies may play a role in the near-historic lows in American public polling of attitudes towards the media: just last week, Pew Research rated journalism's accuracy (and its willingness to admit mistakes), independence, and neutrality at anemic levels. A majority of surveyed people said that journalism is more important than in the past because it "help[s] make sense of all of the info that is available", and an even larger group believe that the media "focus on unimportant stories."
In downplaying the technical dimensions of wide-ranging government surveillance programs in favor of human-interest stories, however trivial compared with the deeper significance of the Snowden case, Wales is charging the mass media with missing out on the "greatest journalistic opportunity of the century"—the chance to convey to a non-technical audience the important details they need if they are to understand how governments are using the Internet to pry into their lives.
According to Wales, we are living in "serious times" that require "serious journalism". What, then, are we to do about it?
Wales referred to Wikipedia as a strong area of the web, one that typically constrains itself to facts rather than "tabloid nonsense". His point is underpinned by one of the encyclopedia's core principles, verifiability, which prevents article writers from analyzing any topic without drawing on a reliable source. Limiting Wikipedia in this way may prove to be more beneficial than negative overall, but it means that if a topic is not covered in an academic work or by the mass media, it cannot be included in a Wikipedia article.
In addition, Wales sees the Wikipedia model, built on the backs of volunteer labor, as insufficient for a news organization. While it works well for article writers who have academic sources on their bookshelves, journalism on serious topics requires a great deal of funding for full-time employees, to enable them to devote as much time as possible to undertake investigative reports and travel, to name two. Volunteers, like those working on the nominally globally scoped Wikinews, are seldom able to accomplish or do either.
Wales called for ideas on a new news-oriented website, which would be built from the ground up as an alternative to traditional and web-based outlets. He imagined that it could feature a hybrid community–paid journalist model, where community members and journalists are either equal or the former as a whole is in charge of the latter. It seems doubtful that this would be a community of Wikimedians, given his call for a brand-new site.
Will anything come of Wales' hopes? The jury is still out. His pronouncement received little attention in his maligned mass media, although there was some coverage from CNN, the South China Morning Post, and the Wall Street Journal's Digits blog.
Such attention will be needed if Wales' proposed site is to attract contributors and readers. The Internet is full of failed news sites like the Rocky Mountain News, and he is entering a relatively crowded market with an idea that is not very different from what is already out there—the difference between community-written news, like CNN iReports, and the type of community–journalist partnership he proposes may not be large. The idea that journalists will be happy writing in this model is also debatable—NewsTilt failed because its journalists were quickly alienated. One wonders if history would repeat itself if paid professional journalists had to answer to a cantankerous, Wikipedia-like community.