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How Three News Outlets Handled the WikiLeaks Dump

Part I: online presentation
July 26, 2010

It’s hard to overstate the colossal challenge of digesting, verifying, and then presenting 92,000 classified documents. When WikiLeaks handed over its files to The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel, these news outlets had several weeks to decide how much staff to devote to the task. And so it’s interesting to see how much these outlets’ online packages differ, in terms of what they spent time and space on, and what types of interactive features they developed to help tell this story.

Rather than necessarily teaching us anything new, the information in this massive document dump multiplies and intensifies what, in some sense, we already know about the war in Afghanistan. To that end, for pure emotional impact, nothing beats The Guardian’s interactive map of IED attacks, 16,000 in the past six years.* Press “start” on the timeline and watch the attacks on a map, color-coded and sized by number and nationality of the deaths, slowly but steadily increase from month to month, until 2010, when they’re flashing like the finale of a fireworks display. The most intrepid readers could comb through hundreds or thousands of incident reports, or they could simply watch that timeline. The cumulative effect of those flashing red, blue, green and yellow circles is like a very slow punch in the gut.

The Guardian also wins for sheer volume of information posted. Besides the interactive map of IEDs, the site has another map embedded with 300 “key events” and information about the fatalities associated with them. Readers can download the WikiLeaks raw data as a spreadsheet. A video narrated by David Leigh, the paper’s investigations editor, explains all of their online tools and shows readers how to translate the incident reports’ codes and acronyms. The Guardian also tells the story behind the story quite well: a rundown of how one whistleblower first contacted a computer hacker in California with an incredible opening: “hi… how are you?… im an army intelligence analyst, deployed to eastern bagdad … if you had unprecedented access to classified networks, 14 hours a day, 7 days a week for 8+ months, what would you do?”

The New York Times package does a good job of providing geographic and historical context for readers; all of the pieces online are flanked by maps of the region to which each piece refers, as well as a timeline of the Afghanistan conflict from 1979 to the present. The paper seems to have focused more on analysis by its writers than on delivering as much raw data as The Guardian, but it still provides enough lengthy excerpts of certain reports to keep the reader engaged. The Times also encourages reader interaction throughout, prominently featuring comment boxes and an e-mail address for feedback, and hosting an “Ask the Times” chat with the reporters and editors involved. It is surprising, though, given the Times’s typically strong multimedia presentations, that the paper did not make more use of any audio or video elements.

Der Spiegel seems to have analyzed and assimilated the least amount of information out of the three news outlets. Its site highlights a brief slideshow of unrelated wire photos of U.S. and German soldiers, with brief text below; features a short piece about how the information in the documents relates specifically to German soldiers (slugged “The Helpless Germans”); and then links to a handful of very short analysis pieces on their individual “findings.” It also provides a link to a message board post asking the question, “Can the war in Afghanistan still be won?” Hardly anyone has participated thus far.

WikiLeaks’s own presentation of the documents, for their part, is fairly straightforward, presented en masse with a “reading guide” but without any analysis. As for why WikiLeaks targeted three news outlets, rather than simply publishing the information on their own Web site and making it widely available for everyone? Jay Rosen points to an interview WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gave last October, in which he argued that the more widely available a story is, the less likely that journalists will want to cover it.

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“It’s counterintuitive,” he said then. “You’d think the bigger and more important the document is, the more likely it will be reported on but that’s absolutely not true. It’s about supply and demand. Zero supply equals high demand, it has value. As soon as we release the material, the supply goes to infinity, so the perceived value goes to zero.”

All three newspapers also conducted interviews with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, which the Times presents in a fairly straightforward sidebar article, The Guardian presents as a video online, and Der Spiegel posts as a Q & A transcript. The Times also posted videos of a press conference Assange gave in London, on its “At War” blog. These different formats emphasize different aspects of this still relatively enigmatic figure. For instance, The Guardian’s video shows Assange in a beige shirt against a white background, speaking quietly and blinking sleepily through uncontroversial epithets like “it is the role of good journalism to take on powerful abusers.” His interview transcribed in Der Spiegel, on the other hand, highlights a much more tweet-worthy line: “I enjoy crushing bastards.”

*Update: this sentence previously misstated the length of the Guardian timeline as five years, not six. The error has been corrected.

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