Whistleblowers and journalists in the digital age

Snowden

Dr Aljosha Karim Schapals, research assistant at the Information Law and Policy Centre, reports on a research workshop hosted by the University of Cardiff on Digital Citizenship and the ‘Surveillance Society’.

A workshop led by researchers at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies (JOMEC) on 27th June in London shared the findings of an 18 month ESRC funded research project examining the relationships between the state, the media and citizens in the wake of the Snowden revelations of 2013.

It was the concluding event of a number of conferences, seminars and workshops organised by the five principal researchers: Dr Arne Hintz (Cardiff), Dr Lina Dencik (Cardiff), Prof Karin Wahl-Jorgensen (Cardiff), Prof Ian Brown (Oxford) and Dr Michael Rogers (TU Delft).

Broadly speaking, the Digital Citizenship and the ‘Surveillance Society’ (DCSS) project has investigated the nature, opportunities and challenges of digital citizenship in light of US and UK governmental surveillance as revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Touching on more general themes such as freedom of expression, data privacy and civic transparency, the project aligns with the research activities of the Information Law and Policy Centre, which include developing work on journalism and whistleblower protection, and discussions and analysis of the Investigatory Powers Bill.

The event provided a welcome opportunity to reflect further on the vitally important relationship between journalists and whistleblowers in the digital age.

Prof Wahl-Jorgensen led the media strand of the project, investigating how the Edward Snowden leaks were presented in the UK media as well as looking at how journalists responded to the event. The findings were discussed in a focused workshop session at the event.

The project’s analysis of media content pointed to an interesting differentiation in the reporting of the event when comparing newspaper and blog coverage: whilst the narrative in the mainstream newspaper coverage overwhelmingly seemed to have normalized surveillance, non-mainstream blogs much rather tended to contest governmental surveillance practices.

Furthermore, the newspapers’ heavy reliance on politicians as sources has meant that the surveillance debate was mainly centered around the impact surveillance had on the political arena rather than what it actually meant for the wider public. That said, what was evident was a quasi-legitimation of the surveillance debate in the newspaper coverage, whereas blog coverage was characterised by a contestation of prevalent governmental surveillance techniques.

The project’s interviews with journalists revealed that they were highly critical of the way the issue was reported in rival news organisations despite being in a position to influence and shape media coverage on surveillance.

Journalists also voiced concerns over perceived limits of public understanding on the surveillance debate, bemoaning the difficulties of communicating the hugely complex phenomenon to a wider audience. Crucially, as was identified in the subsequent discussion, this seems to have resulted in media coverage centered around Edward Snowden’s personality as well as his personal background rather than privacy concerns more generally.

Most importantly, however, the findings point to a chilling effect on journalism: with increased surveillance of digital communications, journalists’ sources may over time become more reluctant to communicate wrongdoing when faced with the prospect of being exposed by surveillance mechanisms and techniques.

Although the Digital Citizenship and the ‘Surveillance Society’ project is officially coming to an end, the protection of whistleblowers and journalistic sources is likely to remain the focus of future discussion, debate and research.

There are significant challenges ahead in the post-EU referendum context. Although the UK’s future economic and legal relationship with EU member states is far from clear, last week’s referendum result – and forthcoming changes in government – may have an impact on the development of surveillance legislation and other related policy areas.

Meanwhile, the Investigatory Powers Bill – which will clarify the powers available to law enforcement and intelligence agencies to intercept, collect and store communications data – continues its passage through Parliament despite the concerns of journalists.

Resources from the Digital Citizenship and the ‘Surveillance Society’ project can be found at this link and will provide an extremely useful basis for further discussions in this area.

Photo: Gage SkidmoreCC BY-SA 2.0

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