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…”
2. “Frequently asked questions about WikiLeaks and the leak of some 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables.”
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?”
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.”
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.”
9. “WikiLeaks posted about 250,000 diplomatic cables that revealed U.S. diplomats’ dual role as spies is expanding.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
15. “Some of the give-and-take in the more than 250,000 documents released by WikiLeaks and published by the Times…”
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.”
20. “WikiLeaks has been the center of attention this week due to its release of more than 250,000 sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables.”
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.)