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Journalistic Ethics: the Guardian and Edward Snowden’s Case


The case study discussed in this research paper is that of Edward Snowden and the series of embarrassing allegations and leaks that were printed by the UK based newspaper, Guardian, against the mass surveillance system that the US government had established along with the National Security Agency (NSA) (Greenwald, MacAskill and Poitras par. 3). Initially, the Guardian printed a series of interviews of Snowden but when the UK government declared that the press releases were a threat to national security and the no other newspaper brought up the issue later on.

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This case is an important study of journalistic ethics as it does not only show how journalistic acumen can reveal exploding but also demonstrate the pro-government attitude of most of the news agencies, who unquestioningly accepted the argument of threat-to-national-security and backed away to circulate the news.

Edward Snowden and NSA – Background

On 6 June 2013, the world woke-up to the groundbreaking news in The Guardian along with its source, Edward Snowden, revealed NSA’s unregulated collection of domestic telecommunication metadata to spy on US citizens. The next day there was revelation of the PRISM program run by NSA that targeted to collect data from individual’s digital footprint. In the subsequent issues, more leaks followed that revealed the US and the UK government’s spying and massive communication interceptive projects that aimed at collecting domestic as well as data from foreign countries (Landau 68).

Following the news release, there were series of attacks by the UK government on the Guardian and its journalists. Interestingly, Mail started a debate on Snowden’s revelations, and argued that classified information released in the newspaper will only aggravate security hazards (Borger par. 1). This triggered a debate over journalistic ethics between the Mail and the Guardian. The latter argued that the revelations were important for democracy. The relevance of the case is the bipolar division of the journalistic world over the Snowden and NSA leaks.

The question that the brief background of the Snowden and NSA case reveals is as follows:

  1. Was it correct on Snowden’s part to reveal NSA security information to a newspaper and not act as a whistleblower and report it to the higher authorities, if he suspected of malpractice within the organization?
  2. Was the Guardian acting ethically by printing such explosive news in the mass media and reveal many of the security agency’s secrets?
  3. The subsequent stand of newspapers like the Mail raises the question if journalists and media houses are puppet of the state machinery they acts as another agency that helps promote government’s efforts.

This section demonstrates that the Snowden leaks about NSA and MI5’s secretive operation and the subsequent efforts of the governments to thwart an effort to reveal such gross violation of privacy laws (Landau 71). However, more interesting is the debate among the media moguls about the ethical conduct of the journalists and the media houses.

Analysis of the Case

Potter Box Analysis and Decision Making

Table 1: Potter Box to analysis Journalistic Ethics

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Facts about the Case
  • Edward Snowden revealed the abuses of public privacy by US government through NSA.
  • Exclusive interview and breaking news printed in the UK based newspaper The Guardian.
  • Direct orders by the UK government to the management of the Guardianto stop the publication of any further classified information.
  • Government infringement of freedom of press
  • Public defamation of the journalists and the Guardianas irresponsible by other media houses such as Mailand Time.
  • Eruption of a debate between the media houses on ethical responsibility of journalists.
  • Supporting the Leak
  • Edward Snowden – the people who supported the leak were supporting Snowden, an ex-CIA analyst, who was now acting as a whistleblower.
  • Individuals and personal freedom – The importance of individual freedom and space was important and hence the supporters were loyal to individual space and democracy.
  • Opposing the Leak
  • Government machinery – Some people and media houses had their loyalties towards the government and took a stand to support them.
  • NSA, MI5 – The employees and heads of these organizations were bound by duty to support these organizations and did so in order to prevent the fall of the institutions.
  • Professional – professional values of the journalists who exposed the Snowden leaks conferred them to expose government infringement into illegal activity.
  • Logical – From a logical point of view the leak was definitely necessary as this, otherwise, would have made mass surveillance a norm.
  • Moral – the revelation was consistent with the moral values of the journalists as it exposed the state machinery of mass infringement into privacy of the masses.
  • Sociocultural – mass surveillance has become a norm of the modern life and massive violation of the government to utilize it along with private companies who willing part with customer information to them can violate the freedom of space of individuals.
  • Supporting the Leak
  • Plato – the supporters of the leak believe that in order to preserve democracy one has to make sacrifices and hence they uphold the ideal of social good above personal freedom.
  • J.S. Mill – every individual is free to lead life the way he/she wants. Interference on illegal monitoring of individual’s personal life is unethical.
  • Existentialist – Snowden’s freedom to express his views on the NSA malpractice was based on the philosophy of individual freedom over collective.
  • Opposing the Leak
  • Social contract theory of Hobbes –Following Hobbes’s philosophy the opposing side of the leak believe that the institution had to do whatever was required to uphold security as they believe that security is better than anarchy.

Stakeholders and Actors

The stakeholders in the Snowden leaks are twofold – the first side is the one who supported the leaks and the second are the ones who opposed it. The supporters of the leak were the journalists who along with Snowden exposed the leak, the media house (Guardian), and individuals who were spied by the government agencies. The ones opposing the move were the government (of the UK and US), media houses (like Mail, Time, etc.), secret agencies like NSA and MI5, and private companies (e.g. Verizon Networks) who were helping government collect private data of individuals. The reputation and trustworthiness of these organizations were at stake.

The loyalties of Snowden and the journalists were towards the individual liberty and freedom of personal space. However, that of the opposing side was towards the nation state that aimed at infringing on individual right and space.

The ethical dilemma that plagued the journalistic community over the Snowden leak was if they would side with the object of individual liberty and freedom or with national security and the question of greater good (Ryan 17). Mass encroachment of individual freedom by NSA raised the question of government’s intention to control individual space (Adams 4).

However, the opposing brigade questioned the reasonableness of the media house that exposed classified security information over mass media and questioned their integrity towards national security. The latter raised the issue of media being a watchdog over powerful state machinery or simply another cog in the machine. The case brings forth the thin line between media ethics and law (Belmas 203).

Decision Made by Media Player

The media players were divided in their decision to expose the government and take Snowden’s side and to support the government’s effort to keep the homeland secure. The industry was divided over the issue of exposing such an officially unauthorized mass surveillance measure or to support it.

I believe the stand taken by the Guardian and its journalists was commendable as they took the risk to expose one of the biggest infringements into public space by state machinery. My decision would have been to help Snowden expose such breech of individual freedom but I would have restricted the amount of security information revealed over the mass media.


The Snowden and NSA leak case reveals the shocking truth about government mass surveillance and the panopticon system of monitoring the private space. The dilemma faced by the journalists over revealing this truth is even more revealing in itself as it exposes the dichotomy in journalistic ethics that are governed by political, social, and personal interests. Overall, the case demonstrates that ethics are government by individualistic, collective, and power-influenced values and often, the power-influenced values that gain precedence.

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Works Cited

Adams, A. A. “Report of a debate on Snowden’s actions by ACM members.” ACM SIGCAS Computers and Society 44.3 (2014): 5-7. Print.

Belmas, Genelle I. “Media Ethics and Law: Together, but Unequal.” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 29.3 (2014): 202-204. Print.

Borger, Julian. “NSA files: why the Guardian in London destroyed hard drives of leaked files.” 2013. The Guardian. Web.

Greenwald, Glenn, Ewen MacAskill and Laura Poitras. “Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations.” 2013. The Guardian. Web.

Landau, Susan. “Making Sense from Snowden: What’s Significant in the NSA Surveillance Revelations.” IEEE Security & Privacy Magazine 4 (2013): 66-75. Print.

Ryan, Michael. “Journalistic ethics, objectivity, existential journalism, standpoint epistemology, and public journalism.” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 16.1 (2001): 3-22. Print.

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