Nieman Conferences

Secrecy and Journalism

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On December 16, 2010, the Nieman Foundation hosted “From Watergate to WikiLeaks: Secrecy and Journalism in the New Media Age,” a new type of Nieman conference, open to the public and shared with a global audience through live streaming, blogs and social media channels such as Twitter.

Considering the enormous impact that WikiLeaks is having on journalism today, the Nieman Foundation convened a group of reporters and editors along with other watchdog experts to explore how secrets are investigated, shared and filtered (or not) in an era of self-publishing, online whistle-blowing, data mining and social media websites.

Among the event’s featured speakers were Kathleen Carroll, executive editor at The Associated Press; Bill Keller, executive editor at The New York Times; Bill Allison, editorial director for the Sunlight Foundation; Walter Pincus, intelligence and national security reporter for The Washington Post; Danielle Brian, executive director for the Project on Government Oversight; and current Nieman fellows Stefan Candea, co-founder of the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism and Kevin Doyle, editor-in-chief of The Cambodia Daily.

The panelists discussed journalism’s role—what it traditionally has been and what it can or should be in this new environment. By providing clarity and transparency on these issues and exploring if and how the journalistic process of investigating, vetting, editing and publishing secrets is still relevant and important in the new media age, the Nieman Foundation took a leadership role in this important public debate.

Serving the Needs of Journalists

The Watergate to WikiLeaks event was the latest in a series of conferences authored and organized by Nieman special projects manager Stefanie Friedhoff aimed at addressing some of the recent changes in journalism and how they affect working journalists.

In 2004, at a time when news organizations began downsizing professional training opportunities, the Nieman Foundation decided to expand its reach by opening up the educational and journalistic opportunities once available only to those in the Nieman program to hundreds of under-served journalists as well as the communities and subjects they cover.

Each devoted to a specific journalistic beat or issue, Nieman conferences have covered a wide range of topics including environmental journalism (“Coming to Terms With Complexity: Environmental Journalism in the 21st Century” in 2004, with a special focus on climate change and water resources); trauma journalism (“Reporting on Trauma: What research can tell journalists about personal and collective responses to tragedy, war, terror and disaster” in 2005 and “Aftermath: Journalism, storytelling, and the impact of violence and tragedy” in 2009); health journalism (“The Next Big Health Crisis – And How To Cover It” in 2006); and conflict journalism (“Reporting Global Conflict: Uncovering the Link Between Religion and Human Rights” in 2008). Every one of these special conferences has been funded by outside supporters.

Running for two to three days in the intimate setting of the Nieman Foundation, the events follow a simple yet powerful recipe: they bring credibility and focus to overlooked but important subjects in journalism; they are highly interdisciplinary; they use the convening power of Harvard and the Nieman Foundation to bring deciders, thinkers and journalists into one room to open a vital dialogue; and they provide “mini Nieman moments” of epiphanies, inspiration and encouragement to hundreds of journalists.

Sharing Important Content Worldwide

A more recent goal of these specialized Nieman conferences has been to share the foundation’s leadership and thinking on each topic globally, using new media.

In collaboration with Melissa Ludtke at Nieman Reports, for example, edited materials of The Next Big Health Crisis and Aftermath conferences are available to readers both in print and online, with narrated slideshows and conference audio files enriching the coverage.

In another example, Stefanie Friedhoff and Nieman Web designer Barbara McCarthy developed a new Nieman online publication,, a one-stop resource for reporters, editors and newsroom managers reporting on pandemic influenza, published just as the H1N1 pandemic was declared a national emergency in 2009. Written by Friedhoff and other journalists, the guide has been praised as a unique resource on the Web and continues to inform the discussion beyond H1N1 coverage.

Expanding from these experiences and experiments, we designed our Secrecy and Journalism conference to be the first live-streamed and live-blogged Nieman event, with full video and blog coverage on the conference website, with additional coverage on the Nieman Journalism Lab site. 

The conference was live streamed at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.; generated close to 1,000 tweets; and attracted more than 700 viewers in real time throughout the day, including journalists from India, Burundi, Ecuador and France.

Testimony from participants:

Aftermath Conference, 2009
“You provided a wonderful forum for so many thinkers and actors in the rough terrain of journalism, war, and trauma. It was redemptive and provided insight and context at such a critical time. With both the catastrophes within news itself, and the world without, we were so fortunate to be able to come together.”
- Jacki Lyden, host and correspondent, NPR
 “Thank you so much for inviting me to the “Aftermath” conference. It was an honor to be there amongst so many outstanding journalists, clinicians and scholars. I was absolutely riveted by hearing first hand from journalists dealing with catastrophes internationally, and bringing back to us badly needed information via images and words. I learned a great deal listening to the journalists’ on the ground concerns, but also from seeing their sense of mission, their courage in traveling all over the world to dangerous places, their indefatigable energy, their humor and bravery.”
- E. Ann Kaplan, Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies; director, The Humanities Institute at Stony Brook 
Religion and Human Rights, 2008
“Being able to engage such a broad array of people on their own terms is truly a gift.” 
- Eliza Griswold, freelance journalist and poet, 2007 Nieman Fellow
“Thank you for giving us access to such accomplished, informed heavyweights and for all the hard work in staging this conference. We on the front lines (journalistically speaking) appreciate it!”
- Tim Funk, The Charlotte Observer
“What was most useful to me was to understand the journalist’s struggle to identify Muslim identity.”
- Imam Dr. Muhammad Nayuran, Ashafa, Nigeria
“All these rich and stimulating exchanges at the conference! The extraordinary composition of such a diverse group of professionals – journalists, academics, as well as human rights folk, from liberals to evangelical activists, made for an improbable formula for success. But the Nieman Foundation did it, and I believe that we are all grateful for it.” 
- Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, Rhode Island College
The Next Big Health Crisis, 2006

“Many of the important ideas and lessons of the Next Big Health Crisis conference flooded back when swine flu seemed to be sweeping from Mexico northward. I thought hard about our discussions of fear as a public health tool – how you need to make people just frightened enough to take disease seriously, but not too scared. The talks and debate from that conference also helped me frame questions of how to cover an international story locally.
“The specific, short-term nature of that conference was especially helpful to me. Considering the financial straits newspapers are in, I’m not sure I can ever hope to get months or a year off for a fellowship. But professional education remains vital, especially for specialty beats such as health. The Next Big Health Crisis sessions perfectly managed both my need for more context and information and the time and financial pressures of journalism today. I hope you’re able to have other, similar sessions in the future.”
- Andy Dworkin, reporter, The Oregonian
“The organization was fantastic. All the speakers were excellent. One of the most important things was learning that a bird with H5N1 could land in one’s backyard and it wouldn’t be a cause for alarm…unless you decided to eat it. It’s been the best conference I’ve been to, and I’ve been to many during my 36 years as a reporter and editor. Many thanks.” 
- Bill Hendrick, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Trauma Conference, 2005
“I liked the presentations on the neurobiology of trauma and on artistic responses to exposure to traumatic events [such as theater or dance], and also their juxtaposition, one at the start of the program, one at the end. They contrasted dramatically and bracketed the range of ongoing research inquiries—very instructive for those of us charged with reporting what is known and what is still theory or investigational. This was an excellent conference—thank you!” 
- Irene Wielawski, freelance journalist
Environmental Journalism Conference, 2004
“Thanks so much for hosting this conference! There is something truly great about touching base with peers; and hearing from top editors was new and a good use of Nieman’s special magnetism. The climate change section was also very valuable. It is so important that Harvard puts its stamp on climate change as a dominant story in environmental journalism.”
- Christy George, Oregon Public Broadcasting
“Being able to attend this conference was an exceptional experience for me in many ways. Most importantly, it made me think about the important roles of journalists and scientists. I never thought of the positive outcomes of their cooperation, or the misleading information some scientists may put in the way to spoil the public’s understanding of what the facts are.” 
- Abdelkarim Asad, advisor to the Palestinian Water Authority