Snowden case underscores value of journalism

The first news item I read today was The New York Times editorial about Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked documents about the NSA’s surveillance practices.

I revel in a strong opinion piece, one that shows courage in taking a stand and backs up that position concisely with clearly stated facts. Other pontificators might have suggested that Snowden be granted leniency in his high profile case, but voicing it has far greater impact when it comes from a trusted news source.

As I look at the future of journalism, the Snowden case stands out as an example of why news organizations are vital to our democracy.

The 30-year-old former computer technician, now living in Russia, reportedly shared classified information about U.S. surveillance with The Guardian and The Washington Post. He faces two charges of violating the Espionage Act and a theft charge, each carrying a maximum 10-year prison sentence if convicted.

In an era when young Americans get more of their news from social networking, it’s difficult to imagine how information aggregators, with no journalistic experience, might have handled this highly sensitive material.

The Times editorial states that Snowden believed the only way to expose what was going on at the NSA was to make the information public. Any whistle blower protections were not available to Snowden because he was a contractor and not an NSA employee.

In the news reports that followed Snowden’s leaked information, the American people learned the extent to which its government had peered into the privacy of citizens here and across the globe. Those details included a “compilation of logs of virtually all telephone calls in the United States” and a collection of “e-mails of foreigners from the major American Internet companies.”

Although American intelligence officials have said the public release of the information has compromised national security, a federal district judge ruled last month that the NSA’s program of tracking Americans’ phone calls most likely violates the U.S. Constitution. As the Times editorial pointed out, the judge also said there was no evidence that the program stopped any imminent act of terror.

I shudder to think of what other kinds of violations might be taking place within our borders, and how many people could be weighing the risks of blowing the whistle on his or her employer.

Only trusted news organizations and experienced journalists know how to sift through and report this kind of information responsibly and intelligently. And editorial boards – separate from the newsgathering side – have the freedom to take a stand on crucial matters that affect us all. These are hallmarks of journalism that must remain strong as the news industry continues to evolve.

 Leave a comment or reach me at lincolnmichel101@gmail.com.

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