“I think the debate has centered on whether this constitutes journalism, and that would have ensued no matter the number of cables so long as some were incendiary enough to garner interest,” she wrote. “While some journalists did refer to the incorrect number as their reason to exclude this as journalism, citing it as a data-dump, I believe they would have said the same for almost 2,000 cables. However, as noted in my first blog on the subject, some journalists clearly found the portion of the WikiLeaks website that claims to verify material and remove details that would harm ‘innocent people’ and they cited that in defense of WL, even for the higher, incorrect number.”

This situation highlights how a seemingly simple matter of an incorrect number can significantly alter one’s understanding of an issue. Two thousand mostly-vetted cables are very different than 250,000 unvetted, dumped cables. Yet the material change is the matter of just a few digits.

This error was initially brought to my attention thanks to a blog post by NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard. A persistent NPR listener repeatedly contacted the organization to object to its reports that said WikiLeaks had publicly released all 250,000 cables.

Here’s the correction published by NPR on December 28:

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.

Along with Greenwald and Shepard, Matthew Schafer, a graduate student at Louisiana State University who writes the Lippmann Would Roll blog, has also been on the case.* He recently provided a list of news organizations that have either been vague or completely incorrect when reporting the figure. His post lists questionable examples from news organizations including the New York Daily News, UPI, the Christian Science Monitor, and the AP. (In fact, the SPJ’s Limor told me she was led to the wrong number by an AP report.)

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

I’d add another rather surprising culprit to his list. Der Spiegel, the German weekly with a huge fact checking department, is among the media outlets to receive leaks directly from WikiLeaks. Yet a summary on this story reports that “The US, for its part, would like to try [Assange] for making 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables public.”

To be fair, other news organizations have been careful about how they describe the WikiLeaks documents. Greg Brock, a senior editor who oversees corrections at The New York Times, told me the paper is in possession of all 250,000 cables, which means it’s technically correct if it says the documents have been released (as in released to the Times). He also pointed to several examples where the paper was delicate in its descriptions of the documents, such as this:

But with the initial series of articles and cable postings nearing an end, the fate of the roughly 250,000 cables that have not been placed online is uncertain. The five publications have announced no plans to make public all the documents. WikiLeaks’s intentions remain unclear.

Or this:

[Assange’s] incarceration has not stanched the controversial flow of classified American documents from WikiLeaks, the most recent drawn from some 250,000 diplomatic cables, mostly between American diplomats abroad and the State Department in Washington.

That said, Brock agrees the language being used by many media outlets is problematic, if not wholly incorrect.

“I think you’re correct that the language being used causes the confusion,” he said in an e-mail. “‘Released’ means different things to different readers. But I think the average person would take that to mean released ‘publicly.’ But they did ‘release’ them to several news organizations.”

Hopefully, the NPR correction and the attention it has garnered will lead to other, similar offerings from news organizations—and put an end to the mistaken reporting. (Politico, for example, corrected a report thanks to Schafer’s work on the matter.) In that respect, this correction from the January 6th edition of The Guardian is good news:

Accompanying a story about confidential US diplomatic cables leaked to the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, a panel - HaikuLeaks, 31 December, page 19 - began: “For those with neither the time nor inclination to wade through all 251,287 of the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks…”. So far, WikiLeaks has published only a portion of this total.

Correction of the Week

Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star.