CJR columnist Craig Silverman wrote on Friday about a very persistent—and highly problematic—error that many major news organizations have made in their writing about the latest WikiLeaks release of U.S. State Department cables. In his column “Cable Access,” he wrote:
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 a new Columbia Journalism Review podcast, Silverman elaborates on which major outlets we’re still waiting for to make a correction, how they should go about it, and—most importantly—what this error can teach us about the importance of precision of language. Listen to the episode below, and be sure to check out the CJR podcast homepage on iTunes, where you can listen and subscribe for free.The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.