Photo credit: Columbia University/Eileen Barroso

In an auditorium so large that Columbia’s Journalism School typically only uses it for its graduation ceremonies, hundreds attended the panel discussion “Journalism After Snowden” on Thursday evening. The topic was as vast as it is timely—encompassing the rising tensions between media organizations and their governments, the practical process of protecting sensitive information (digitally) and oneself (legally), and the delicate dance between privacy and power.

Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center at the journalism school (and a member of CJR’s board of overseers), moderated the panel, and she started it off by asking Guardian US Editor in Chief Janine Gibson to give a behind-the-scenes account of the very beginning of the Summer of Snowden. Gibson described how Glenn Greenwald called her in New York shortly after making contact with his then-nameless source, saying something like “I think I have the biggest intelligence leak in a generation, if not ever.”

Gibson was skeptical, but listening; however, she also knew that Greenwald was calling her from Rio over a Skype line. She knew from her previous work on the paper’s WikiLeaks coverage that Skype was relatively untrustworthy technology, and she all but hung up on him. But Greenwald soon flew to New York to meet with her and a few trusted staff members. There, he showed them the tiny sample of stuff he had gotten from his source—starting with the PRISM PowerPoint slides—on a new, air-gapped laptop hastily bought from Best Buy for the occasion.

“You very quickly realize that this is an incredibly huge, sensitive, difficult story—or it’s the Hitler Diaries, it’s a great big hoax,” said Gibson. Then came the story of the now-familiar trip to Hong Kong, and their meeting with an oddly young contractor and his Rubik’s Cube, and the cache of documents of a size that no one has yet been able to quantify.

Verifying that Snowden’s account was legit was one challenge—reporting the story out was an entirely different one. They started with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order for Verizon metadata. “We were trying to edit, write, report, understand, and verify a document that no one has ever seen,” said Gibson. “You can’t Google ‘secret FISA Court order’ to see if it looks like one that’s in front of you.” The audience laughed at this. “No, that’s not funny, that’s a genuine problem,” she countered, drily.

The conversation shifted to the Guardian’s collaboration with The New York Times as the documents from Snowden kept coming over the following months. Jill Abramson’s first response to Bell’s question about the Times getting involved was an honest memory of her disappointment that her paper hadn’t been first with the scoop. “We did not break the story—the Guardian and The Washington Post did—and that caused me, you know, severe indigestion,” said Abramson.

But both Gibson and Abramson agreed that the partnership between the two papers during this process was invaluable. Tech-savvy reporters and editors at the Guardian educated their peers at the Times about best digital-security practices for communicating, searching, viewing, and storing the classified documents. Then, the Times was able to protect the files when the British government aggressively pursued (and forced editors to destroy) the Guardian’s hard drives in the UK.

The Guardian’s outside counsel, David Schulz, was on the panel as well. He had previously worked with the Times during their WikiLeaks coverage. When asked about the legal challenges to news organizations dealing with such sensitive material, he started with the word “conundrum.” A news organization possessing and then publishing classified documents is “still a legal gray area,” said Schulz.

Later in the evening, Barton Gellman, who leads NSA coverage at The Washington Post, spoke to this same issue. Speaking from the audience, Gellman asked the panelists to try to parse the Director of National Intelligence’s statement this week that Edward Snowden “and his accomplices” should return the documents he stole in order to protect US security from being further compromised. Are we to understand that James Clapper was referring to the press with that term, “accomplices,” Gellman asked, or was this just a rhetorical flourish of his agency’s frustration? Either way, he said, it is getting harder to report on national security issues.

“Almost everything you want to write about, if you are writing about diplomacy or intelligence or defense, is classified; everything but the press release and the news conference is classified,” Gellman said. “That’s just the way the US government works. There may be more classified information now than there is open-source information on the planet.”

In a larger sense, though, what information is or is not classified, and what legal protections reporters may or may not have, are beside the point—as these NSA stories have revealed. Schulz responded to Gellman’s concerns with this frightening truth: “The technology that we have today, you don’t need to subpoena a reporter anymore. There’s an ability to find out who gave out any information,” said Schulz. “And we should all be very concerned about that, because we all need whistleblowers…. If we don’t have a mechanism that allows for whistleblowers, our whole society is going to suffer.”

That was a persistent and important theme that the panel kept returning to—that, besides journalists’ legal protections, equivalent protections should be extended to the people who risk their livelihoods, and lives, to bring this information to light in the first place. Gibson said Snowden had “an eerie prescience,” and described his sense of urgency in getting as many NSA stories published before the government, and his critics, tried to make the story about him and his traitorous intentions.

Bell agreed: “Where oversight has failed, a whistleblower and journalism has succeeded,” she said. “And yet the system is still wanting to punish, if you like, the one thing which has led to transparency and clarity.”

“But that should be completely unsurprising,” Abramson jumped in, citing the fact that the current administration has investigated seven “criminal leaks,” more than twice the number of such investigations, based on a law passed in 1917, pursued before President Obama took office. That such legal battles were still being fought by James Rosen, of Fox News, and James Risen, of the Times, were mentioned several times throughout the evening.

Gibson also highlighted the new and alarming ways in which the Snowden story has caused certain threats from the establishment to escalate.

“Instead of the position that journalists find themselves in where they’re being threatened with prosecution over identifying their sources, we are now being put in the position of something even more chilling—of being ‘co-conspirators,’” said Gibson. The accusation is now “‘You’re part of a conspiracy, possibly involving the KGB, or maybe China. Because the ordinary way of chilling journalism won’t work in this case. And I think this should be profoundly worrying, because that’s not going to stop. That is a ‘Journalism After Snowden’ problem.”

At one point, Bell asked the panel, “I think we can all agree that Edward Snowden has done us a favor. Do we have general agreement on that?”

“I have no comment on that,” answered Cass Sunstein, the fourth panelist, who participated in the President’s outside review group that recently released a report proposing changes to the NSA surveillance program. “We have a 300-page report, and the word ‘Snowden’ doesn’t appear.” Later, Sunstein also said that he did not think that the members of the review group would refer to Snowden as “a whistleblower” at all. (So what is he, then?)

After a substantial question-and-answer period from the audience, Bell ended the night by asking the panelists for their magic-wand wish for what journalism would ideally look like in this post-Snowden age. Sunstein named internet freedom, and Schultz imagined an internationally agreed-upon standard for individual privacy rights.

The two editors had more profession-specific requests.

“More great stories,” said Abramson.

“No prosecution for journalists,” said Gibson. This was met by spontaneous applause.

The video of Thursday’s event is up online in full, here.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner