Gaining Readers’ Confidence In the WikiLeaks Dump

Part II: Verification

My previous post addressed the challenges that The Guardian, The New York Times, and Der Spiegel must have faced in organizing the WikiLeaks data and presenting it in a way that would have the most impact. Perhaps a bigger challenge, though, was that the information was unsourced (so essentially unverifiable) and marked secret (so potentially harmful to national security).

All three outlets assure their readers that none of the information they are presenting puts NATO troops at risk, and all make the caveat that they have no knowledge of the sources of these documents. The Guardian provides the most detail to readers about how they went about digesting and verifying the documents. An excerpt:

A team of investigative reporters, regional specialists and database experts spent weeks combing the data for matters of public interest. After establishing the meaning of more than 400 abbreviations and military acronyms they were able to authenticate the logs by comparing them with other records and cross-checking with other sources. They were able to dismiss some of the more lurid intelligence reports as unfounded and establish that some aspects of the coalition’s recording of civilian casualties is unreliable.

The New York Times“Note to readers” is a bit less assuring to those who might have doubts as to the accuracy of the information:

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.

It is sometimes unclear whether a particular incident report is based on firsthand observation, on the account of an intelligence source regarded as reliable, on less trustworthy sources or on speculation by the writer. It is also not known what may be missing from the material, either because it is in a more restrictive category of classification or for some other reason.

As I noted in my last post, though, the Times is doing an impressive job of encouraging and keeping up with reader concerns and questions, which can go a long way in inspiring reader confidence. Executive editor Bill Keller is answering reader emails here: his explanations so far include topics such as how the Times determined what material would be harmful to publish, and what communication the Times had with the White House prior to publication, and why exactly this is such a “big deal.”

Der Spiegel’s coverage of this story online is relatively spare overall, and its editors have next to nothing to say about its methodology. All readers get by way of back story is a brief italicized note posted above each article:

Editor’s note: The following article is an excerpt from this week’s SPIEGEL cover story.[…] Britain’s Guardian newspaper, the New York Times and SPIEGEL have all vetted the material and reported on the contents in articles that have been researched independently of each other. All three media sources have concluded that the documents are authentic and provide an unvarnished image of the war in Afghanstan [sic]— from the perspective of the soldiers on the ground.

Perhaps the print (German-language) version of SPIEGEL has more extensive detail than the International version of Der Spiegel’s Web site. But a visitor to its Web site would have very little idea of how the paper came to be in possession of these documents or how its reporters “vetted and reported” their contents.

Readers don’t necessarily expect an extensive back story to every article they read online. This story in particular, though, seems to demand it; and The Guardian and the Times show that a small bit of effort into editor-reader interaction can go a long way in using this occasion to stimulate an important conversation.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner