Journalism v. intelligence

This post is part of a series about the ethics of intelligence for the media.


Both journalism and the intelligence professions involve information.

Certain journalistic and intelligence practices may also appear similar: for example, the use of confidential sources (HUMINT), or in the case of open-source collection and analysis (OSINT), their historical origins.

The BBC, for example, was created, writes Laura Calkins "'to intercept the broadcast transmissions...for the benefit of the intelligence departments of His Majesty's Government, for the propaganda services, and for the Home, Overseas, and foreign News Services of the British Broadcasting Corporation.'"

Calkins also writes that "[a]nother facet of BBC intelligence work, more short-lived than that of the Monitoring Service, involved analytical studies of Osint [open-source] material prepared by the BBC Overseas Intelligence Department. Using Monitoring Service output, this Department began issuing a Weekly Survey on 'propaganda broadcast by enemy, neutral, and allied countries' in September 1939."

Journalism reportage and intelligence analysis may also address the "Five Ws and One H": that is, the questions who, what, where, when, why, and how.

However, journalism and intelligence as professions should not be conflated.

Journalism is a function of civil society, while traditional intelligence collection, analysis, and dissemination to policymakers or their military counterparts have traditionally been the function of governments.

Journalism, Generally

While not inclusive of all types of journalism, media practitioners generally acquire, aggregate, vet, analyze, and disseminate information to the public that is on-the-record concerning events (or related subjects) that are happening or that have already happened.

According to one prominent press association's code of ethics, journalists are cautioned to "avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public."

According to the Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Committee, "audiences and conventional wisdom expect sources to be fully identified as a way of assigning media credibility...Use of anonymous sources is a decision demanding careful consideration."

Associated Press' guidelines state:

Transparency is critical to our credibility with the public and our subscribers. Whenever possible, we pursue information on the record. When a newsmaker insists on background or off-the-record ground rules, we must adhere to a strict set of guidelines, enforced by AP news managers.

Under AP's rules, material from anonymous sources may be used only if:

1.) The material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report.
2.) The information is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source.
3.) The source is reliable, and in a position to have accurate information."

Intelligence, Generally

Intelligence practitioners collect, process, analyze, and disseminate knowledge, assessments, and forecasts to policymakers in response to information requests and requirements, including products that reduce uncertainties or that rely on secret information.

In this specific way, intelligence "refers to information relevant to government's formulation and implementation of policy to further its national security interests and to deal with threats from actual or potential adversaries," including friendly competitors, writes intelligence scholars, Abram Shulsky and Gary Schmitt.

Intelligence can include everything from information and analysis about an adversary's political, societal, and economic developments to their military and technological limitations and capabilities.

Therefore, intelligence, generally, even when it is based on open-source information, involves secrecy and competition, as well as denial and deception.


Read more in this series about the ethics of intelligence for the media:

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