What is Wikileaks: The Fifth Estate reveals impact of citizen journalism

A WikiLeaks protester in support of Free Speech.

A WikiLeaks protester in support of Free Speech.

If you’ve been following the recent news stories about Wikileaks, its founder Julian Assange and other stories about leaks and citizen journalism, then you’ll be interested in the new film, The Fifth Estate. Directed by Bill Condon (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2) and starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness), the film follows events surrounding the largest exposure of government secrets in history.

Wikileaks history

By now everyone knows the role that Julian Assange has played in developing the web site Wikileaks. What they may not know is that he was not alone in developing the concept of a site that would assist whistle-blowers in spreading information about corporate crimes and government secrets.

Working with colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Assange built Wikileaks into a powerful news entity dedicated to increased government transparency. However, when thousands of government documents were presented to Wikileaks by Bradley Manning, questions of ethics arose that tore at the founders’ working relationship.

What is the fourth estate?

The title of the film relates to the estates within society. Traditionally these estates have included:

  • the first estate: the church and clergy
  • the second estate: the nobility
  • the third estate: the peasantry, skilled and unskilled workers and merchants
  • the fourth estate: journalists who report the news

In an August 16, 2013 post for PressThink.org titled, “When you’re in a Fourth Estate situation,” Jay Rosen quoted English historian Thomas Carlyle on the definition of the fourth estate.

“[…] invent Writing, Democracy is inevitable. Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures: the requisite thing is that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite,” Rosen quoted.

Journalism is the fourth estate

So important was the concept of a free press, that the framers of the U.S. Constitution protected it in the First Amendment. With the emergence of the Internet and sites such as Wikileaks, the question arises as to whether these outlets constitute true journalism. Even if that is the case, however, history shows that protection is not always assured.

In Privileging the Press: Confidential Sources, Journalism Ethics and the First Amendment, Jason M. Shepard explores the court rulings concerning journalists.

Regarding one case against a newspaper publisher, the judge’s ruling discussed how punishment of a leaker can differ from that of the publisher.

“Though government may deny access to information and punish its theft, government may not prohibit or punish the publication of that information once it falls into the hands of the press, unless the need for secrecy is manifestly overwhelming,” the ruling stated.

The Fifth Estate

What is the fifth estate? It has emerged because the fourth estate is seen as increasingly ineffective in fulfilling its commitment to holding those in power accountable. The fifth estate includes whistle-blowers, informants, bloggers and those citizen journalists who are willing to present their information to the world. In short, every citizen can be a member of the fifth estate.

However, professional journalists carry out their work according to a strict code of ethics. They undertake training and education to learn the tools of their trade such as vetting sources and choosing stories to cover.

Can citizens really be trusted to take on the role of journalists? This question is one of the key points at the heart of the film The Fifth Estate.

Roy Peter Clark explored the question of citizen as journalist in his April 28, 2009 post for Poynter.com titled, “Who is the Fifth Estate and What is Its Role in Journalism’s Future?

According to Clark, non-journalists can find relevant training that will empower them in their role as citizen journalists. They only need to build a few key skills.

“One cornerstone is news judgment. The other is the solid evidence that comes from reporting. The capstone includes ethics, mission and purpose. Training can help amateurs understand both traditional and innovative definitions of news -– stuff that matters in the public interest,” Clark said.

The Fifth Estate opens in theaters on October 18, 2013.

Are you planning on seeing the film The Fifth Estate? Tell us why or why not in the comments below.

Read more about legal and ethical issues in journalism at Questia where you’ll find millions of full-text books and articles.

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