The Snowden revelations appear to have ushered in a new age of journalism or at least highlighted a trend that dominates the social media journalism. The trend is that news stories are treated like entertainment scripts. The Snowden revelations seem to be managed like a script similar to television programmes like Lost, Homeland or 24, where plot devices keep the audience focused on the next bombshell. How the story is promoted and advertised almost becomes more important than its content. In this approach, journalism becomes like political theatre. The revelations are used for political purpose. Joe McCarthy was infamous for his use of “sources” for political theatre. He drew attention to his cause and stimulated audiences with his claims that “he had a list of Communists”. The audience was held in a state of heightened anticipation. They had to wait for the next revelation, when the Communists would be unmasked. Leaving aside the rather ugly effect of such political theatre, we have to ask whether journalism that becomes public theatre serves the public interest.
In each story, the journalist decides when and how to disclose documents. The decision is made to suit their purposes and the public must wait for the journalist to decide what is important for them. Yet, if that revelation will influence their relationship with the government, is such behaviour democratically responsible? The public are denied the opportunity to examine the evidence for the claims. The public are caught in a journalistic Catch-22. They cannot see the documents to hold the journalist or the government to account and the journalist must act responsibly and not disclose all the files. The public can only react to what the journalist has provided. If the journalist’s evidence only supports the harshest claims, how will the public know if that is accurate, true or its context? Is this in the public interest? When stories are managed like scripts, journalism can become public entertainment.
All writers want to keep their audience interested in the story and journalism, like the entertainment industry, relies on its audience. They are not simply disinterested academics producing scholarly works. They are promoting a commodity that is bought and sold. However, the internet audience is not captured like a physical newspaper captures its audience. You may read other stories because you have bought the newspaper. On the internet each story is like a miniature newspaper and must compete for attention. If a journalist uses anticipation to serve their interests, does the line between self-promotion and promoting the public’s understanding, the public interest, begin to blur? Who benefits if the journalist manages gradual leaks to create a larger audience? Until all the documents are released the public are left uncertain as to whether the public interest is being served by the journalist. They, like McCarthy’s audience, are in danger of being seduced by journalistic demagoguery that serves a private interest masquerading as the public interest.