5 years ago, Edward Snowden changed journalism

Five years ago today, The Guardian began publishing a series of stories that would change the way the public viewed their online lives. “The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America’s largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April,” began Glenn Greenwald’s exposé, the first of dozens of stories that would appear in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Germany’s Der Spiegel. The source behind all of those stories, we would later learn, was Edward Snowden.

We’re still coming to grips with the implications of the questions he raised. The Snowden leaks led to a new understanding of the extent to which the US government collected data on its citizens, and sparked an international conversation about digital privacy. The recent revelations about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, or Facebook and device makers last week, show how far people are from knowing how their data is used—much less being in control of it. The recent flurry of emails about “updates to our privacy settings” that you’ve seen in your inbox due to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) can be directly traced to Snowden’s actions.

Negotiations over GDPR had already begun back in 2013, but the pressure on companies to give users more control of their data came from Snowden’s revelations. “If history had gone a little differently, people would still be getting lots of emails, but the privacy policies would have been much weaker, and given them far fewer rights,” write Nikhil Kalyanpur and Abraham Newman for the Post. “US and European corporations originally had a lot of influence over the lawmaking process that led up to GDPR, and it seemed likely they would use it to strengthen their grip over your data. Ultimately, European consumer advocates pushed back and flipped the lobbying script. Their success relied on an unexpected foreign ally: Edward Snowden.”

RELATED: Journalism after Snowden: A new age of cyberwarfare

Snowden’s actions didn’t just change the way the public views their online lives; they also changed the way journalists operate, and brought more scrutiny to secret government programs. In Journalism After Snowden: The Future of Free Press in the Surveillance State (excerpted by CJR), Clay Shirky writes, “It’s clear the stories that arose from Snowden’s leak have moved journalistic coverage of the world’s governments, already a fraught endeavor, into a new and more contentious phase.” Encryption, before Snowden a tool for the paranoid and conspiratorial, has become commonplace for reporters and sources around the globe.

Five years later, Snowden remains in exile, living in Moscow while still facing espionage charges in the US. In an interview to mark the anniversary, he tells The Guardian he has no regrets about his decisions. “The government and corporate sector preyed on our ignorance. But now we know,” Snowden says. “People are aware now. People are still powerless to stop it but we are trying. The revelations made the fight more even.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Below, more on the way Snowden’s revelations changed journalism.

  • Privacy in the era of Trump and Facebook: Snowden talked with The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan about surveillance, tools that can help protect people’s privacy, and the likelihood of a Trump-Putin deal to extradite him.
  • Ushering in a new age: Former Guardian Editor in Chief Alan Rusbridger writes that Snowden opened journalists’ eyes to their new responsibilities in the digital age. “Pre-Snowden, a knowledgeable minority would certainly have known about metadata. Post-Snowden, there’s no excuse for anyone in journalism (or the law, or medicine, or any profession involving confidentiality) not to know what metadata is,” Rusbridger writes.
  • Snowden on the media: Emily Bell, Director of The Tow Center for Digital Journalism, spoke with Snowden in 2016 about his views on the press in the age of digital surveillance. Not surprisingly, he hasn’t been very impressed.

 

Other notable stories

  • Two important stories from our new print issue: Sarah Jones asks how journalism got so out of touch with the people it covers. “Whether you cover pop culture or poverty, your background shapes your path into your chosen field,” Jones writes. “And if your background includes poverty, that path contains boulders.” And Meg Dalton describes the necessity of a side hustle for journalists whose paycheck doesn’t make ends meet. “In a profession that was once working class, those who are lucky enough to not depend on their meager paychecks tend to be from more privileged upbringings—and that transition has had a serious impact on coverage,” Dalton writes.
  • Monday marked the 29th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing, and the Hong Kong Free Press’s Ilaria Maria Sala shared previously unpublished photographs from the protest.
  • In the first installation of “The Monday Interview,” a new series of journalists on journalism, Seymour Hersh tells Elon Green about spies, state secrets, and the stories he doesn’t tell. “The secret to Trump, I think, is he wants to be loved by The New York Times as much as by Fox News,” Hersh says. “He talks to them a lot, more than they tell you.” Hersh also talks about his decision not to report that Richard Nixon abused his wife, Pat.
  • “The media have developed a ludicrous and expanding menu of complex euphemisms for describing racist behavior,” writes The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer. “An era in which Americans are supposedly exhausted with political correctness is thus defined by the acute political sensitivities and persecution complexes of white voters who object if things they do and say are described as racist, even as the bodies pile up in the background.
  • CJR’s Karen K. Ho speaks with CBS’s David Begnaud about covering Puerto Rico when few others did. “It’s not my job to say how other people should feel,” Begnaud says. “But I believe that it should be a national story that continues and doesn’t fall off the front page.”
  • The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis asks if ESPN’s Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre can create a new version of sports talk TV. The duo’s inaugural show on Monday was an impressive first effort, and Curtis goes behind the scenes on how producing guru Erik Rydholm has attempted to translate the host’s friendship into on-camera chemistry.
  • President Trump disinvited the Philadelphia Eagles from their planned White House visit, writing in a statement that “they disagree with their president because he insists that they proudly stand for the national anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country.” (No Eagles players kneeled during the Anthem last year, though some did raise a fist in protest). However you feel about this politically, it’s nice to be reminded that, yes, the Eagles beat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.

ICYMI: After new death toll report Friday, Sunday TV ignores Puerto Rico

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.