Time for a pop quiz: How many of the leaked diplomatic cables in WikiLeaks’s possession has the organization released publicly?
A) Roughly 2,000
B) Roughly 250,000
C) None. They’ve all been released by media outlets.
I’m willing to bet that many people will get this wrong. Maybe even most people. Journalists certainly have been getting it wrong, which means the public has been fed a diet of inaccurate information for some time.
The correct answer is A: Roughly 2,000. But many news outlets continue to report that WikiLeaks dumped all 250,000 or so diplomatic cables online. This incorrect fact has spread far and wide. It’s also frequently cited as a reason why WikiLeaks does not deserve recognition or protection as a journalism organization.
In just one example, the president of the Society of Professional Journalists cited the incorrect figure in a blog post. Here’s how Hagit Limor’s post originally began:
If you’re looking for consensus on WikiLeaks, don’t ask a group of journalists. Several of our committees have been batting around the ramifications all week, and we can’t even agree on the most basic question: Is WikiLeaks journalism?
Those who say “no” call WikiLeaks a source, a conduit, a whistleblower. They call the 250,000 diplomatic cables posted online a data-dump without filters, fact-checking or context from other sources. They say there’s no original reporting, hence the need for established media partners to get out the word.
After being alerted to the mistaken figure, the correct “2,000” was inserted where “250,000” used to be—though no correction was added to the post in order to disclose the error and note the change.
I asked Limor how she reacted when she realized her initial figure was incorrect.
“My reaction was immediate: to set the record straight,” she said by e-mail. “Accuracy is topmost for any journalist. Our Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics places it as our first test under our tenet to ‘Seek Truth and Report it.’”
Further down in the SPJ’s Code, it also says that journalists must “Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.” As of this writing, the post is still without a correction/admission, a fact that was noted by a comment on the post, in addition to being pointed out to Limor by me in two e-mails. I’ll ask again publicly: please adhere to the SPJ Code of Ethics and add a correction to the post, noting the original error and when the fix was made.
NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen was among those who pointed out the error, though his comment was held for close to twenty-four hours before being approved. (It went live after I asked Limor to look into the issue. She explained that Rosen’s comment was inadvertently caught up in a spam queue.) When I pointed out the post’s lack of a correction, Rosen responded with this tweet:
Hilarious, @CraigSilverman. They fixed the error, no correction, and the comment where I pointed it out (with links) is awaiting moderation.
One obvious concern about the prevalence of this mistaken number is that it could cloud the way people view WikiLeaks. If you’re under the impression that WikiLeaks indiscriminately dumped 250,000 diplomatic cables online without any kind of control or vetting on its part or that of its media partners, then you’ll probably have a different view than if you’re aware that it has publicly released roughly 2,000 cables, many of which have been vetted (and had parts redacted) by established media partners. (Salon’s Glenn Greenwald offers more detail about the vetting process used for the first 960 cables put online by WikiLeaks.)
Rosen views the number confusion as a significant error that has tainted the discussion about WikiLeaks.
“[Limor’s] corrected post now suggests that SPJ members skeptical of Wikileaks were skeptical of the organization dumping 2,000 documents willy nilly onto the web,” Rosen told me. “But clearly, what they had debated was the false premise: indiscriminate dumping of 250,000 documents. Is she claiming she went back and asked for a do-over of that debate based on the now corrected premise? No. She’s saying something that distorts the prior history.”
Limor doesn’t feel the incorrect figure changed the nature of the discussion within the SPJ.