The following is a term paper I wrote about media coverage of WikiLeaks in December, 2010. While some of the information is outdated, I think the main points are still very relevant to the discussion of WikiLeaks.
In the flood of media coverage surrounding the rapidly developing story of WikiLeaks, many news outlets have failed to pause and consider their editorial attitude towards the organization and to do the necessary reporting for a full story. Coverage of WikiLeaks – especially since the beginning of its release of thousands of State Department cables – has been fragmented, causing confusion and inadvertent speculation by many media outlets, including some of the world’s top news organizations.
Coverage in The Guardian, The New York Times, The Sunday Times, CNN.com, and Al Jazeera offers varying angles on issues surrounding the site and its founder, Julian Assange. But while The Guardian does original reporting and background work, the other outlets seem to stitch together previously available facts (and sometimes speculation) into a new narrative, creating an ocean of similar stories without breaking real news.
Along with the rearranging of old news, outlets seem to carelessly approach a very sensitive topic. WikiLeaks is described by many as a media outlet, and is at the center of a very heated debate about free speech and freedom of the press, but news organizations (nearly all of which fail to address this) often seem to take a side inadvertently with their portrayal of WikiLeaks and its critics.
The problems in the coverage of WikiLeaks are not glaring, obvious errors, but foreseeable troubles in the coverage of an incredibly broad and deep issue with many important (but not always related) aspects. Allegations of sex-related crimes committed by its founder in Sweden, international investigations into the possible criminality of WikiLeaks’ activities, and an expansive and dynamic set of technical challenges for the organization all contribute to the ongoing issue. On top of this, news organizations are also covering the materials released by WikiLeaks. All of this makes for an highly-concentrated demand for good, deep reporting, but a race against the clock as organizations try to be the first to publish stories.
As the public face of WikiLeaks, founder Julian Assange has made sure to bring as much attention to the organization as possible, always spinning its challenges as an opportunity to garner support from the public. Though he is very hard to physically locate most of the time (many powerful people feel threatened by him), Assange makes sure the media always has plenty of quotes to work with, doing phone interviews and the occasional in-person Q & A. He knows that public support will be a deciding factor as his organization comes under fire from a growing list of governments and groups.
In a feature in The New Yorker magazine last summer, Raffi Khatchadourian spent time with Assange as he edited and subsequently released footage taken from an American helicopter during attack on civilians that had occurred in Iraq soon after the invasion. The story offers a very candid view of WikiLeaks, a peek into the inner workings which readers don’t often see from any organization, public or private. This access is something Assange hopes everyone will have to every organization, and his mission is to give it.
Such deep insight into WikiLeaks is harder to get since it began releasing diplomatic cables in November. As more coverage and attention comes to WikiLeaks and its founder, his desire to live in the public eye diminishes. As a result, the news media are trying to do more with less.
The New York Times covered the mounting challenges for WikiLeaks in a December 4, 2010 article. The story mentioned three U.S. companies that had terminated their relationship with WikiLeaks. Amazon, EveryDNS, and PayPal had all stopped service to WikiLeaks. The article implied that all three terminated their service in response to political pressure, or – as the story quoted WikiLeaks’ twitter account as saying – “surrendered to U.S. government pressure.”
In reality, Amazon and PayPal cited violations to their terms of service in their reasoning to back out whereas EveryDNS only cited that cyber-attacks on WikiLeaks were threatening their ability to continue service to all other customers, so they were forced to stop serving WikiLeaks. In the company’s statement, they say that their only political opinion on the matter is their state motto: “Live Free or Die.”
The New York Times article doesn’t go into depth about this detail, which brings to light that EveryDNS did not stop service (and in doing so force WikiLeaks to move all operations to Europe) due to a political disagreement, but out of operational necessity. In an article about another aspect of WikiLeaks, grouping the three companies as U.S. companies that stopped serving the organization would be fine. It seems, though, that when writing solely about the challenges facing WikiLeaks – especially in a political context – it is important to mention the motive of all companies individually, not group them together.
The New York Times story also seems to take sides with WikiLeaks in that same article, following every challenge to the organization with an upbeat response from WikiLeaks but only attempting to contact the Obama administration (who did not comment for the story) and citing no contact at all with the three U.S. companies that terminated service or anyone involved with the prosecution on the “case of sexual improprieties” allegedly committed by Assange. While the article quotes WikiLeaks as having called the allegations “dirty tricks” seeking retribution for Assange’s work with WikiLeaks, it does not further explore the allegations. This creates the impression that there is very little to the case and that the accusation that “dirty tricks” are at work is somewhat valid.
One of the only stories to do (somewhat) original reporting on the subject of the sexual allegations against Assange is one in The Guardian from Tuesday, December 7, eight days after WikiLeaks splashed into headlines with the beginning of its release of State Department cables. The article, which also talks about challenges facing WikiLeaks, but focuses more on Assange, goes in depth about the sexual allegations. The allegations have been mentioned but not explained with any depth in the mainstream english-language media since the beginning of this media coverage. They stem from a accusations filed by two women in Sweden in August of this year. There have been multiple changes in the charges by different prosecutors in the Swedish government, some of who said that there were “no grounds to suspect Assange of rape,” according to the story.
All of the information used in The Guardian’s article has apparently been available since August, when a Swedish paper did a report on the incident and allegations. Despite this, nearly all stories mentioning Assange since the cables began coming out have only mentioned the allegations without providing detail. Al Jazeera, in a story about Assange, even went as far as saying that he “is accused of rape and sexual molestation.”
While the latter is true, the former was not true (Due to the nature of Swedish sex laws, this charge has now been added. When this was written, there were no official charges of rape that I could find.), and is explicitly addressed in the story in The Guardian; “Speaking anonymously, one of the two women involved told the Swedish daily newspaper, Aftonbladet, she had never intended Assange to be charged with rape and that both women had had voluntary relations with him.”
This failure to properly investigate a story is surprising, especially for a multinational, multilingual news organization such as Al Jazeera. It seems as though “facts” have been legitimized in this swarming media coverage not by foundations in a reliable source, but by repetition; “since all of the other major news outlets have published stories mentioning sexual offenses by Assange, we can too.”
Finally, in its last sentence, the Al Jazeera article speculates about the conditions under which WikiLeaks would give out the password to its encrypted “insurance” file, which has been downloaded widely but is encrypted and cannot be unlocked without a password. Assange has only said that the file, the contents of which are largely unknown, serves as a last-ditch deterrent from actions against him or WikiLeaks, but neither Assange nor the organization has stated the conditions under which they would release the password. Despite this, the article states that “the information could be instantly made public if the staff [of WikiLeaks] were arrested.” This is pure speculation, but it is framed to look like something Assange said (the sentence starts with “In what Assange described as…”).
While uncited facts are an obvious problem, a less obvious but still important issue with coverage of something as sensitive as WikiLeaks is that of appearing biased. Just as the New York Times article above seemed to be biased towards WikiLeaks, an article in The Sunday Times of London seems biased in the opposite direction. But while the reporting itself in the New York Times article was the problem, the apparent bias in The Sunday Times is a simple matter of word choice.
The Sunday Times, an apparently reputable paper, also did a story about this “insurance” file that WikiLeaks has distributed (I can’t link to the story because The Sunday Times is behind a paywall.). While the story is good and deep in its content, it uses a lot of loaded words; nearly every time the story quotes Assange, it says that he “warns” or “warned” instead of using the more neutral “says” or “said.”
While the story is generally well-balanced, favoring neither WikiLeaks or its critics, the use of these words gives Assange a hostile tone, turning readers away from him while using “said” when referencing the U.S. Department of Defense. The issue of WikiLeaks has news organizations divided, some supporting the release of sensitive information and others condemning it as reckless. Because of this, an organization trying to appear neutral has to be wary of even the slightest appearance of bias.
CNN offered a very up-to-date and well-reported article on the then-recent developments of the story on Monday evening, doing a very good job remaining unbiased. The article simply provided a step-by-step report of events, adding as little commentary as possible. The article failed to lead with the newest updates on the financial status of WikiLeaks, which included actual dollar amounts which they reported as having lost as a result of PayPal and a swiss bank terminating service to the organization. This could have come earlier, as it was news that was not widely reported. The news in the lede, which was that Julian Assange was planning to meet with British authorities, was widely reported by the time the article was published.
The differences between the coverage of WikiLeaks in the 10-day period following the release of the diplomatic cables and coverage from before WikiLeaks’ extensive leaks about government (which began with the footage of U.S. helicopter attack on civilians, covered in the New Yorker feature) are many. While some are to be expected – the former are hard news and the latter is a feature – others are more surprising. In the June 7 New Yorker feature about Assange and WikiLeaks, presumably a relatively low-stakes story, there was extensive background research and fact-checking.
In the recent flurry of coverage, fact-checking and background research seems to have been of secondary focus with more importance placed on publishing a story quickly.
In a media atmosphere where the majority of non-video news is on the internet, speed is a very important factor in the production of a piece of news. Reporters can’t sit and wait for hours for a source to call them back, and don’t have extra time before the presses start running to explore a lead. When the story is written, it’s published instantly online. This is good for consumers in that it allows them to know about things almost instantly, but bad in that it causes news organizations to abandon the time-consuming methods of reporting that often produce the best stories in favor of faster, more shallow methods. In the case of WikiLeaks, all of the largest news outlets in the world are covering every development in the story. Because of this, all of these outlets are rushing their reporters, each trying to post a new development before the others. The problem is that very few of these organizations have devoted significant resources to putting together an in-depth, accurate, and deep story. News consumers are inundated with quick, light stories about the most recent developments without getting the context or implications of the news.