You are on page 1of 4

Chas Goldman

The Role of Social Media and Investigative Journalism in the Digital Age
In 1971 the press began to leak stolen documents they received from Daniel Ellsberg
about the United States involvement in Vietnam. Ellsberg was working at a defense
contractor named RAND Corporation and had access to these highly classified
documents that would later be dubbed the Pentagon Papers. The Pentagon Papers painted
a grim image of the war in Vietnam. However, it would take four years from the time the
first of the Pentagon Papers were published by the New York Times until the United
States pulled out of the war in Vietnam.

In August of 1974 President Richard Nixon became the first and only American President
to step down. His resignation came after his involvement in the Watergate Scandal. The
scandal was uncovered by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
and exposed a secret fund used to sabotage Nixons political opponents that Nixon
himself was involved in directing. The first article about the Watergate Scandal was
written in 1972, it took two years from the release of that article for President Nixon to

Fast-forward 36 years to 2010. The website WikiLeakes began to upload documents

pertaining to the United States involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. The site would
continue to upload hundreds of thousands of classified documents in the greatest
intelligence breach since the Pentagon Papers ("WikiLeaks Fast Facts"). It took less than
a month for warrants to be released for the arrest of the sites creator, Julian Assange
(WikiLeaks Fast Facts).

April 3, 2016, a week ago. The International Consortium for Investigative Journalism
released 2.6 terabytes of data that implicated thousands of people, including many world
leaders, in offshore tax evasion ("The Panama Papers: what's"). The dust from this
scandal is far from settled, but Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Dav Gunnlaugsson
lasted less than 48 hours before he stepped down after being implicated in tax evasion.

All of these leaks rocked the world but the more recent ones, WikiLeaks and the Panama
Papers, show how the national and global political climate has changed in the past forty
years with the rise of the Internet and social media.

The response time to these massive level scandals has shrunk tremendously. It took
multiple years for the United States to get out of Vietnam and years still for Nixon to
resign following Watergate. Modern day scandals have much quicker response times of
months of even days as seen by WikiLeaks and the Panama Papers.

The speedy response to the modern day scandals of WikiLeaks and the Panama Papers
shows a change in culture from the early 1970s to today. Social media and the Internet
have made it much easier for information to spread quickly. Whereas in the 1970s people
needed to tune in to the news at a certain time or grab a paper copy of the Washington
Post to read about the Watergate scandal now all you need to do is type a search into
Google or log onto Twitter. People used to have to find information, now information
finds people.

The WikiLeaks scandal and the Panama Papers also show how investigative journalism
has changed in the digital age. When Daniel Ellsberg was physically copying the
Pentagon Papers he was doing so by hand, in the middle of the night, in secret. It took
him months. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post spent years
trying to extract information on Watergate from sources. They published information as
they received it, little by little. To contrast that with investigative journalism in the digital
age, WikiLeaks and the Panama Papers were online leaks en masse. WikiLeaks released
hundreds of thousands of documents at one time. The International Consortium for
Investigative Journalism released almost 2.6 terabytes (11.5 million documents) of
information at once with the Panama Papers. Investigative journalism used to consist of
following leads of a story, tracking down sources and convincing those sources to go on
the record about what they knew. Now investigative journalism is about sifting through
thousands of leaked documents and trying to make sense of them all, as was the case with
WikiLeaks and the Panama Papers. Scandals used to come in drops, now they are fullscale floods.

The floods often come before the analysis of the facts. That is to say that with both the
Panama Papers and WikiLeaks, thousands of classified documents were suddenly
released to the public and they were released before anyone or group had done a
comprehensive study of the documents and their contents. This bombshell style story
means that there is a massive fallout. Evidence of the fallout from these more recent
scandals can be seen with the stepping down of the Icelandic Prime Minister and the

immense pressure that has been put on other world leaders including British Prime
Minister David Cameron to step down from his post after being implicated in the Panama
Papers. The reaction from the public to massive scandals in the digital age is swift and
harsh and the reaction is often made according to documents that have not been
thoroughly analyzed.

Investigative journalists should take their time when preparing to releases a massive story
or scandal to the public so that the facts can be analyzed by experts before they are
released to the public where they may be misinterpreted.