That paragraph alone highlights traditional fact checking, data analysis, and a very rare form of collaboration between media outlets. I contacted Der Spiegel to see how the world’s largest fact checking organization handled the verification process, but was told by the head of its research and fact checking department that they weren’t ready to talk about this yet. I also provided questions to the Times, but didn’t receive responses. I hope to follow up in a future column with additional information.
For now, though, the Times detailed some of its approach to verification in A Note to Readers:
The Times spent about a month mining the data for disclosures and patterns, verifying and cross-checking with other information sources, and preparing the articles that are published today …
To establish confidence in the information, The Times checked a number of the reports against incidents that had been publicly reported or witnessed by our own journalists. Government officials did not dispute that the information was authentic.
Note the last line. Assange can gripe about the White House’s involvement, but the truth is the Times in effect forced the administration to confirm the authenticity of the documents. That’s another big verification win for WikiLeaks. It added a key node to the verification network.
As it turns out, the Times wasn’t alone in approaching the administration. Politico’s Ben Smith offered details about how the three news organizations dealt with the White House:
White House officials I talked to feel the Times was conscientious … The administration was considerably less impressed with the Guardian’s outreach efforts — an administration official described their attempts to verify the reports through the White House and Pentagon as minimal.
Der Speigel reporters did a little better, requesting comments on a few of the reports, the person added.
There’s one final layer in this verification scheme that’s particularly remarkable. At the same time these news organizations were engaged in a process that served to add credibility to the documents and to WikiLeaks itself, Assange set his group up to act as an arbiter of the accuracy of coverage delivered by these same news organizations. This point was made by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, and summed up nicely by Mathew Ingram at GigaOm:
… even after it provided the documents to the media outlets, WikiLeaks still maintained the ultimate control over them — including the ability to publish all 90,000 of them at the same time that the stories based on them appeared in the NYT, Guardian and Der Spiegel. This, Rosen says, provided an almost unprecedented check on the traditional media, since any gaps or omissions from their stories would become obvious. Typically, sources cut exclusive deals with a single outlet, and that entity has the final say over what appears — but WikiLeaks has altered that traditional balance of power.
In the end, there’s a certain brilliance in the way Assange shifted the burden of verification and analysis away from WikiLeaks, while at the same time ensuring he was able to call out mistakes made by the very news organizations that supplied the all-important credibility to his data.
Correction of the Week
“In Monday’s editions of the New York Post, we published a story that confessed wife-killer Johnny Concepcion underwent a liver-transplant operation at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
“The hospital yesterday issued a statement that no such operation took place. The Post relied on two NYPD sources for its report, and it is now evident they were misinformed. We apologize to our readers for the error.
“Prior to publishing the story, The Post sought official response from New York-Presbyterian. The Post was denied information by the hospital, which stated it could not discuss individual cases because it would be in breach of the Health Information Privacy Act (HIPA).
“Curiously, the hospital now sees itself free to publicly discuss Concepcion’s case.” – New York Post