CERL – Journalistic Ethics and the National Security State: Transparency and the Rule of Law in Democratic Societies – 9-11 November 2017


Democratic governance depends on an engaged and educated public, to which transparency and access to accurate information are essential. At the same time, effective national security has always relied on secrecy and the ability control sensitive information. Journalists and the public at large all understand that there is a need to strike a balance:  the media has a responsibility to the public to report on matters of relevance to national security, and government has a duty to protect the state, a duty with which journalists must not interfere.

The ability to control national security information is possessed exclusively by the government. Frequently there is a strong, legitimate incentive for the government to withhold information that it deems sensitive or mission-critical. There is no articulated standard, however, to which the government must adhere to when it comes to withholding or releasing information. There has been a dramatic increase in the classification of government information in the wake of 9/11. The freedom of the press must not be hindered by unnecessary withholding of important information. The public’s displeasure with the lack of information has led to many significant leaks of classified government information.

Major outlets for the publication of leaked information such as WikiLeaks and others like it have provided a popular platform for the dissemination of state secrets. Information leaked by known or unknown sources creates a dilemma for reporters. Information that has been leaked is often unverifiable or classified in nature. Likewise, international influence in American media has led to the spread of unfounded and inaccurate news which undermines American politics and security, often appearing to be legitimate leaks. The media must determine whether information is credible while also grappling with the decision to release what may inadvertently harm the United States.

Information has also become an effective tool for adversarial governments intent on influencing American discourse and undermining the free and accurate flow of objective news. Russian interference in the recent election, and the more benign domestic based “fake news,” proves that the American public is susceptible to manipulation. The media plays an important role in filtering out as well as countering harmful influence campaigns aimed at misinformation and interference.

The reporting of extremist violence and frequent re-airing and terrorist propaganda videos has troubled many people who worry that such coverage only adds to public fear and uncertainty. There’s evidence that media sensationalism is indeed spreading a toxic message which may help terrorists win their propaganda war. There is a fine line between reporting on important issues such as terrorism and conflict, but at what point does coverage begin to aid the belligerent actors’ causes?