This is the Life: Too much information?

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The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

Those words were written more than two centuries ago by William Wordsworth, who used to express his rage at peoples’ influence on the planet by kicking over stone walls as he tromped around the fields in England’s Lake District. That the world is too much with us came to mind in recent months with the international news story that is commonly referred to as WikiLeaks.

Earlier this year a reader from Nelson forwarded a story on the topic via email, suggesting I might find it interesting and asking for my reaction to it. The story outlined how journalists and traditional news organizations were shying away from using at least the first round of releases — which totalled more than a quarter million — at the end of November. Cowards? Conspirators? Incompetents?

My response, one I had formulated in the weeks leading up to the release of reams of confidential information, was one of sympathy for those who had to wrestle with whether to use the information and, if so, how. It isn’t just enough for a journalist to have such information. In order to use it for legitimate reporting, it has to be verified so that the writer/s and news organizations have confidence in its authenticity. Information also needs context to be truly helpful.

I commented that history might look back and conclude that the world became a better place when documents intended to remain secret were released. In the short term, though, I was concerned that the documents could and very likely would put people in harm’s way.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I read a lengthy feature article in the New York Times that detailed that newspaper’s role as one of the recipients of the leaked documents. The face of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, had worked with employees of the Observer and the Guardian in London, promising them early delivery of the documents in exchange for a promise that articles would not be published prior to an agreed-upon release date. Those employees encouraged Assange to include the New York Times in the agreement, arguing that the most important newspaper in North America could play a crucial role in using the heretofore secret documents.

The Times had initial concerns about dealing with Assange, but understood the enormity of the story that was about to unfold. It assembled a team, one that included reporters who were particularly adept at collating large amounts of information by using programs to search for keywords. The results of those searches were sorted in spreadsheets and then other reporters went to work in isolating specific stories from the reams of documents, and then to verify the information.

The article was fascinating in that it painted a vivid picture of how a news team works under enormous pressure to create stories that were of interest to the Times’ readers. Perhaps more importantly, it documented the many steps that were taken to try to ensure that security and the safety of individuals was not compromised. At every step of the way, government agencies were provided with story contents and asked for feedback about security and safety.

One interesting comment was made about the attitude of the Obama administration compared to the Bush presidency. Current players made no effort to quash the information and offered no threats to go along with their input. By contrast, the writer said, similar but far less dangerous information had elicited threats and dire warnings when the Times had offered the Bush brain trust the same courtesy.

In reading the article, I was impressed and relieved to learn of how much importance the New York Times put on writing stories that put the information into context, and how careful it was not to jeopardize the security of the U.S. and other nations. We have reporters in dangerous situations all the time, the writer observed, and we have no interest in putting them, or anyone else, in danger.

Of course, the Times, Guardian and Observer only had the information for a short period before it was made available to the entire world. It is information that, without context, can be manipulated and misused by anyone. Like much of what can be found on Internet websites, it can be as harmful as it is helpful. Anonymous writers can put out information in any form they wish, without fear of having to face any consequences whatever. That’s a luxury the New York Times clearly did not want. I think history will be kind to the way one North American newspaper dealt with a world-changing story.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.