Jeff Hermes and Andy Sellars
For over a decade, scholars have noted the increased role that those outside the institutional press play in informing the public. This past year, however, has shown an especially significant rise in the prominence of primary source material originating from members of the general public. In numerous significant instances, individuals have engaged with primary source material to supplement mediated news content or highlight under-reported issues. This engagement has involved both the gathering of primary source material to share with others and the collective analysis of such material by loosely-connected networks of experts, analysts, and commentators.
Over the past year, several major news stories were broken by concerned citizens and activists gathering and disclosing direct evidence of government and political activity, including the videos shot by citizens of Damascus documenting the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war; the “47 percent video” recorded by a member of the catering staff at an event held for presidential candidate Mitt Romney; the PRISM slide deck and other NSA materials disclosed by Edward Snowden to The Guardian; and the “lady in red” photo of Ceyda Sungur, which served as a unifying moment for anti-government protests in Turkey. This year has also brought unexpected collaboration between citizen media and law enforcement, including during the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombing, where the FBI actively solicited terabytes of eyewitness photographs and video to help identify the bombers.
In the United States, courts have begun to recognize a constitutional right of citizens to engage in this form of direct documentation, at least when directed at the actions of the government. Following the 2011 decision of a federal appeals court in Glik v. Cunniffe, a second federal appellate court recognized a First Amendment right for citizens to record the police in ACLU v. Alvarez. Marking a rare intervention in the behavior of state law enforcement, the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division also stepped in to support the rights of citizens to record the police in a case pending in federal court in Maryland, Sharp v. Baltimore Police Department.
Private organizations, including MuckRock, Open Corporates, OpenGov, and MapLight, continue to provide resources to facilitate access to public records and government data and publish relevant documents. Judicial attention to transparency with electronic government records has increased concurrently, punctuated in the United States by cases addressing GIS mapping data and access to government document metadata. Meanwhile, a number of organizations, including Public.Resource.Org, SCOTUSblog, and the Oyez Project, have obtained funding, favorable judicial rulings, or other support for efforts to mirror general government data on their own websites.
While the creation and surfacing of primary source material by citizens has been seriously questioned only when the source breaches a duty of confidentiality over the information disclosed, such as the disclosures of Edward Snowden, significantly more criticism has been voiced as citizens move from documentation roles into analysis roles. This complexity was best highlighted during the events surrounding the Boston Marathon bombing. While public documentation of the incident was critical to the law enforcement investigation, the public’s desire for information at a rate faster than the government (or traditional news sources) would provide it led many citizens to try to parse primary source material directly. The results of these efforts were mostly negative; attempts to locate the bombers using online platforms like Reddit (on early iterations of /r/findbostonbombers) and to gather more information on the day of the Tsarnaev manhunt by listening to police scanners led to misidentifications and confusion – although similar criticisms were appropriately leveled against institutional news outlets for similar behavior. The increasing social recognition of traditional media ethics around verification of information posted on these sites has led to a richer and more expedient dissemination of information than traditionally thought possible through institutional media outlets.
The increased role of citizens in surfacing and analyzing documents has helped break news stories and improve public understanding of issues, but not all government activity with respect to primary source material has favored publication. Even in the United States, a nation that prides itself in transparency and free speech, the government has aggressively punished some of these disclosures. This has included a notorious criminal prosecution against activist Aaron Swartz for gathering thousands of academic articles for an undisclosed future use, which received significant attention and scrutiny following Swartz’s suicide. The Department of Justice also obtained a conviction against Andrew Aurenheimer for accessing an unprotected AT&T website, escalating the charges from a misdemeanor to a felony based on Aurenheimer’s disclosure of the data he obtained from the AT&T website to news website Gawker as evidence of AT&T’s security vulnerability. (This case is now on appeal.) In August 2013, the United States also sentenced Chelsea Manning to 35 years in military prison, following her disclosure of thousands of documents to the organization Wikileaks. The position reflected in the pending federal shield bill—that citizen media and organizations dedicated to surfacing primary source material are not “journalists” worthy of protection—further underscores the continuing reluctance of the government to recognize the critical role that primary source material plays in informing the public.