NPR Fesses Up to WikiLeaks’ Coverage Blunder, Now It’s Everyone Else’s Turn

by Matthew L. Schafer

Today, NPR issued a correction relating to its coverage of the WikiLeaks’ saga.  NPR’s correction reads:

In recent weeks, NPR hosts, reporters and guests have incorrectly said or implied that WikiLeaks recently has disclosed or released roughly 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables. Although the website has vowed to publish “251,287 leaked United States embassy cables,” as of Dec. 28, 2010, only 1,942 of the cables had been released.

NPR’s correction highlights a pervasive misconception propagated (likely unwittingly or perhaps just out of sheer laziness) by news media around the world.  In the first several days of WikiLeaks coverage, multiple news outlets suggested that WikiLeaks posted all 250,000 cables on its website at once.

“What does the extraordinary release over the last few weeks by WikiLeaks of reams and reams of confidential information–the latest is a batch released today of around 250,000 United States diplomatic cables–mean for the media,” The Economist asked just days after WikiLeaks began publishing the cables.

Moreover, many outlets used phrases similar to “document dump” to describe WikiLeaks’ publishing,  which likely leads to the misconception that WikiLeaks did cavalierly publish all 250,000 cables.  According to a LexisNexis search, on 397 separate occasions, newspapers around the world used the phrase “document dump.”

While this may not explicitly suggest that WikiLeaks uploaded all 250,000 cables at once, it certainly does not properly describe the last 30 days’ release of just 1,942 cables.  That’s just .77 percent of the total cache, and only about 65 cables a day.

Unfortunately, this misconception is still being reinforced.  Just two weeks ago, The Washington Post again used the phrase “document dump” to describe the release.  There, Jessica Valenti wrote, “In the same way that Assange’s document dump held a mirror to U.S. diplomacy, the accusations against him and the subsequent fallout reflect our country’s overly narrow understanding of sexual assault, and just how far we are from Sweden’s legal standard.”

Below, LWR has pulled a non-random sample of news organizations falsely writing that WikiLeaks published all cables in its possession.  The following examples are just a few instances of lazy journalism.  Some illustrate ambiguous language, while others’ language is just flat out wrong.

It’s worth mentioning that often the word “release” is not attributed.  That is, the articles do not say to whom the release was made.  A release by the website to the public?  WikiLeaks’ release of the documents to the newspapers?  Thus, a newspaper may say that it was referring to WikiLeaks release of all cables to its newspaper partners, but this is far from clear.

The bottom line is that newspapers and other news media should be more careful when referring to WikiLeaks’ release of documents.  At the very least, these news outlets should make clear that WikiLeaks has released less than 2,000 cables as of December 28, 2010.


1.  “[Michigan’s Rep. Peter Hoekstra] said some of the material in the roughly 250,000 released documents is “gossip…”
-AP

2.  “Frequently asked questions about WikiLeaks and the leak of some 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables.”
-MSNBC.com

3.  “What does the extraordinary release over the last few weeks by WikiLeaks of reams and reams of confidential information–the latest is a batch released today of around 250,000 United States diplomatic cables–mean for the media?”
-The Economist

4.  “The WikiLeaks publication of 250,000 diplomatic cables stripped the veil from long-classified projects, exposed back-channel communications and revealed unflattering comments about foes and friends alike.”
-The Daily News (New York)

5.  “In Russia, where spreading misinformation is integral to the political culture, the latest WikiLeaks release of more than 250,000 diplomatic cables is being seen as an attempt to smear President Obama.”
-Christian Science Monitor

6.  “This is one of the early revelations of the new release of 250,000 US government documents by Wikileaks.”
-Digital Journal

7.  “With the release of some 250,000 American diplomatic cables by the WikiLeaks organization, the outcome could include doors closed to United States diplomats, candor turning to reticence and leaving many people leery of dealing with American officials.”
-The New York Times

8.  “Despite warnings from the State Department and the White House, Wikileaks released some 250,000 classified U.S. diplomatic cables on Sunday.”
-Xinhua

9.  “WikiLeaks posted about 250,000 diplomatic cables that revealed U.S. diplomats’ dual role as spies is expanding.”
-UPI

10.  “Last night WikiLeaks was publishing up to 250,000 diplomatic cables – many from the American embassy in London to Washington.”
-The Sun (England)

11.  “In a Monday morning message on Twitter, Palin suggests the administration could have taken to the courts to put the brakes on Sunday’s release of 250,000 documents.”
-Politico (Note: Politico has corrected the error in response to NPR and LWR.)

12.  “Among the nearly 250,000 diplomatic cables that were released this weekend by Wikileaks is the revelation that China’s Politburo orchestrated an attack on Google’s computer systems.”
-PC Magazine

13.  “A party official reached by AFP had no immediate comment on the leaked US cable, which was among more than 250,000 documents that WikiLeaks released on Sunday.”
-AFP

14.  “WikiLeaks on Monday published some 250,000 diplomatic cables that the US State Department exchanged with US embassies overseas including South Korea over the last three years.”
-BBC

15.  “Some of the give-and-take in the more than 250,000 documents released by WikiLeaks and published by the Times…”
-UPI

16.  “The US was forced into damage control mode yesterday by the WikiLeaks release of more than 250,000 classified government documents revealing unflattering assessments of world leaders and revelations about secret US diplomacy.”
-The Irish News

17.  “Ms. Clinton managed to inject a note of levity into her otherwise tough denunciation of those who stole and published the 250,000 messages from U.S. embassies.”
-The Globe and Mail

18.  “Likewise, the focus today should be not on the embarrassment of the 250,000 secret U.S. diplomatic communications and documents released by website WikiLeaks.”
-The Augusta Chronicle (Georgia)

19.  “WikiLeaks came under intense pressure Tuesday after its mass dump of sensitive US documents, with China demanding action, the website facing cyber attack and a defector announcing a rival site.”
-AFP

20.  “WikiLeaks has been the center of attention this week due to its release of more than 250,000 sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables.”
-Mashable


Note: Some have questioned the 1,942 cables released figure. Some estimates put it at upwards of 2,200. Nonetheless, LWR stands by its number, which was taken from a primary source–the WikiLeaks’ website. (Today, that number reads 1,947.)

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About Matthew L. Schafer

Matthew L. Schafer graduated from the University of Illinois in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Media Studies. He later attended Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication where he earned a Masters of Mass Communication and Georgetown University Law Center where he earned his J.D.
This entry was posted in Media Policy, Political Communication and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

45 Responses to NPR Fesses Up to WikiLeaks’ Coverage Blunder, Now It’s Everyone Else’s Turn

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  2. johnnyjohn@yahoo.com says:

    very contemplative, but how exactly does the the phrase “document dump” imply that wikileaks released all 250,000 cables? it doesn’t imply anything. it’s a boring, meaningless cliche.

    also, did wikileaks release 65 cables a day? because you seem to imply that in your argument.

    • Matt Schafer says:

      I don’t think that “document dump” does necessary imply that WikiLeaks released all 250,000. That’s why in the article I wrote: “While this may not explicitly suggest that WikiLeaks uploaded all 250,000 cables at once, it certainly does not properly describe the last 30 days’ release of just 1,942 cables. That’s just .77 percent of the total cache, and only about 65 cables a day.”

      As far as 65 cables a day, you are correct. The 65 is an average. Indeed, WikiLeaks is not on a “65 articles a day” schedule.

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  4. Abe says:

    Why do you object to saying that WikiLeaks has released all the cables? It has.

    Why do you object to saying that WikiLeaks has engaged in a document dump? It has. It sent all the documents to newspapers.

    This statement is entirely accurate: “[Michigan’s Rep. Peter Hoekstra] said some of the material in the roughly 250,000 released documents is “gossip…”

    So is this one:

    15. “Some of the give-and-take in the more than 250,000 documents released by WikiLeaks and published by the Times…”
    -UPI

    You seem to be carrying water for WikiLeaks when you try to argue that WikiLeaks hasn’t released all the documents. That’s exactly what it has done.

    • Matt Schafer says:

      Hi Abe,

      This is not correct:
      15. “Some of the give-and-take in the more than 250,000 documents released by WikiLeaks and published by the Times…” -UPI
      The Times has not published all 250,000 documents.

      This is ambiguous. Ambiguity is mentioned in the post:
      [Michigan’s Rep. Peter Hoekstra] said some of the material in the roughly 250,000 released documents is “gossip…”

      Best.

  5. Abe says:

    You do pretty well, until you say that newspapers should make clear that WikiLeaks has “released” only 2,000 documents.

    Again, that’s not so. It has released them all.

    What you mean, I suppose, is that news organizations should make clear that WikiLeaks has “published” only 2,000 documents.

    • Matt Schafer says:

      Hi Abe,

      I would direct you towards the last three paragraphs, which read, in part:

      “The following examples are just a few instances of lazy journalism. Some illustrate ambiguous language, while others’ language is just flat out wrong.

      It’s worth mentioning that often the word “release” is not attributed. That is, the articles do not say to whom the release was made. A release by the website to the public? WikiLeaks’ release of the documents to the newspapers? Thus, a newspaper may say that it was referring to WikiLeaks release of all cables to its newspaper partners, but this is far from clear.

      The bottom line is that newspapers and other news media should be more careful when referring to WikiLeaks’ release of documents. At the very least, these news outlets should make clear that WikiLeaks has released less than 2,000 cables as of December 28, 2010.”

      When a newspaper only writes that WikiLeaks “released” the documents, this–while perhaps technically correct–is ambiguous, which is exactly the language I used in the post (See above). I don’t think it is a stretch to say that a newspaper’s use of ambiguous language is journalistically incorrect.

      Indeed, it should not be the job of a reader to decipher the language in newsprint. Instead, it is the newspaper’s job to inform its reader–not to reinforce misconceptions by a failure to provide clear accurate information.

      Thanks for the comment.

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  8. Abe says:

    Sorry, but you missed my point.

    Look at this paragraph of yours: “The bottom line is that newspapers and other news media should be more careful when referring to WikiLeaks’ release of documents. At the very least, these news outlets should make clear that WikiLeaks has released less than 2,000 cables as of December 28, 2010.”

    My point is that you (a) chide newspapers for being imprecise, and then (b) use your own imprecise language, saying newspapers should make clear that WikiLeaks has released less than 2,000 cables. Again, WikiLeaks has released them all. You’re urging news organizations to say something that hasn’t true: it hasn’t released less than (fewer than, in news style) 2,000 cables — it has released more than 2,000, in fact more than 200,000.

    Do you see? Perhaps you meant to say “published” them all.

    • Matt Schafer says:

      Hi again Abe,

      I haven’t missed your point. I understand exactly what you are saying. I just happen to not agree. I do not believe that I made the same mistake that I am “chiding” newspapers for doing. Indeed, the entire article is about the mistake they made. I think that is quite clear. Regarding your other statements, I would simply refer you back to the article.

      Best.

      • Steve says:

        I think it’s so funny when people argue and disagree and then in the most passive agressive manner possible end their post with “Best.” Like you really wish that person “best” (whatever that even means). Ahhhh yes, I miss the great north where posts end with an emphatic, “Yo, go f*** yourself.”

        Best (haha)

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  31. Ellie K says:

    What is the status now, do you happen to know? How many of the 250,000 or so documents (cables etc.) have been released for the public to view?

    I’m confused by the distinction between “publication” and “release” at this point. I thought that “release” meant to give access to a person or organization, who may or may not make any further disclosure of that information. “Publication” meant to make information available to the public, whether for a fee e.g. like a research paper behind a pay wall, or for free e.g. on an open website, or in a newspaper. But after reading the discussion above, I’m not certain!

    But I am curious how many of the cables have been posted somewhere that is accessible to the public via the internet, with a well-known URL. I tried to figure it out from searching using Google, and reading articles in periodicals that have been covering WikiLeaks, but haven’t found specific counts anywhere. If you happen to know, I’d appreciate it. Thanks for reading this!

    • Hi Ellie,

      I’ll check around for the number and get back to you. The issue is not so much the difference between “publication” and “release.” As I mentioned in the post, the job of the journalist should be to provide accurate and clear information. By suggesting, as papers did in 2010, that WikiLeaks had released all 250,000 cables was simply false. It doesn’t matter who WikiLeaks released the cables to; it only matters that whatever meaning you ascribe to “release” the fact remained that WikiLeaks had not released all 250,000 cables at the time this post was published. Thanks for your comment.

      Best,

      • Ellie K says:

        Hi Matthew! Hope all is well with you. Is this correct? Some major media sources erroneously promulgated the idea that ALL 250,000 cable were BOTH:
        A) handed over in their entirety to the coalition of newspapers, Guardian UK, NY Times, et al AND
        B) published in their entirety for general public viewing, on or before end of year, Dec 2010?

        Yet I was unable to find 250,000 documents on any websites, in any obvious (or non-obvious) place. Then I heard a few weeks ago that the remaining documents would be posted for the public. I didn’t pay a lot of attention though. So I inquire of you now, as you offered in the past (although I completely understand if you’re too busy, just like me): What is the status of the WikiLeaks documents at present, in mid-September 2011?

        I do not intend any sort of analysis of the documents contingent upon their release. I mostly just want closure for my own blog post WikiLeaks Tally, April (and July update, when I linked to your article here), to be honest. Also, I suspect that sifting through 248K docs– if 2K were released– would require an organized effort by many people for a long time! Thank you for your help.

        Last thing: Don’t be unsettled by grumpy comments that ridicule your polite use of “Best” in closing. Maybe it is the default setting you use on Disqus. Or perhaps you believe in treating everyone with a modicum of respect and decency. Whatever the reason, it is nice.
        Best, Ellie K

      • Hi,

        I completely forgot to update the numbers. All 251,287 cables were released en masse online, but were password protected until a Guardian journalist unknowingly published the password in a recent book about WikiLeaks. The files are now available online for inspection by anyone, which of course has caused quite a stir. You can read more about the release here: http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2011/09/wikileaks-unredacted-cables//

        Best,

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