Expert Commentary

Case study: “Friend or Foe? WikiLeaks and the Guardian”

2011 case study from Columbia University on ethical issues implicated in the relationship between an activist news source and a major news organization.

Columbia University’s Case Studies Consortium provides educational materials that bring students into the heart of complex real-world situations in a variety of fields, including journalism. “Friend or Foe? WikiLeaks and the Guardian is a 2011 open-access case, reposted in its entirety with the permission of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.


This case is about the celebrated collaboration between WikiLeaks, the secure website for whistleblowers, and the mainstream media — focusing on the British Guardian newspaper. It raises for discussion whether the Guardian and its international media partners were correct to collaborate with WikiLeaks and to publish U.S. secret government documents. The case traces the history of the Guardian’s relationship with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange through the summer and fall 2010 publication of confidential documents from the Afghan and Iraq battlefields, up through the eve of publishing a trove of classified diplomatic cables in November 2010. It also examines the relationship and logistics of coordinating five news organizations pledged to secrecy as they prepare to publish the cables simultaneously.

Use this case to discuss government and media relations — in this instance, is the U.S. government a partner or an adversary? When is national security a reason not to publish? Students should also consider what constitutes journalism and who is a journalist. What is Assange? What rules should govern the Guardian’s relationship with WikiLeaks?Also talk about international media collaboration. What principles are involved? Finally, students will gain insight into the challenges of data-driven reporting, and an appreciation of what is required in the Internet age to process large amounts of data and make it publicly available.

(It should be noted that this case was written before additional major developments unfolded, including a highly publicized parting of ways between the Guardian and Wikilkeaks, and the release of all the cables in question, without redactions. These news developments might be brought into discussion of the case study as factors that further complicate the initial editorial deliberations.)

This case can be used in a class on government-media relations; managing sources; data journalism; editorial decisionmaking; or international reporting.


This case was written by Kirsten Lundberg, Director, Knight Case Studies Initiative, Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University. The faculty sponsor was Professor Michael Schudson. Funding was provided  by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Tags: news, international, Internet