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Wikileaks’ “Afghan War Diary” as Litmus Test for Media Bias

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On July 25th the organization known as WikiLeaks, a confidential resource for whistleblowers who wish to release secrets to the public,  released tens of thousands of classified documents pertaining to the war in Afghanistan. The Afghan War Diary, as it is called provides an unfiltered look at the war in Afghanistan as told by coalition forces on the ground. Not surprisingly, these documents paint a somewhat different picture of the war than what the American public is used to hearing from American journalists and politicians. According to an interview WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange had with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, the documents (some of which have not yet been released by WikiLeaks) even reveal dozens of potential US war crimes against innocent civilians. At a minimum The Afghan War Diary reveals numerous civilian deaths, problems with unmanned drones, Pakistan’s possible support of the Taliban, and the corruption and unreliability of Afghan government officials as well as military and police forces.  However,  what is perhaps more revealing than the leak itself, is the opportunity it has provided to gauge media bias.

WikiLeaks did an interesting thing when they decided to release The Afghan War Diary– before going entirely public with the leak they gave three major newspapers a sneak preview: The New York Times in the US, The Guardian in the United Kingdom, and Der Spiegel in Germany. All three papers received the WikiLeaks documents three days before they went up on the WikiLeaks webpage and agreed not to publish anything about them until WikiLeaks’ official release date on July 25th. Two days later Eric Johnson broke a fascinating story in the Huffington Post about how differently The New York Times and The Guardian had covered the leak. In essence, he found that the two papers ran entirely different stories about the same exact material.

Johnson relied on a method called content analysis when comparing the two papers. This method involves both recording the number of instances a certain word or phrase appears in an article as well as determining the broader intention of the text. However, the simple truth is you don’t need a scientific approach to realize the vast differences between the two stories. It’s obvious. All you have to do is look at the most prominent article in The Guardian with the headline, “Afghanistan war logs: Secret CIA paramilitaries’ role in civilian deaths” versus the most prominent article in The New York Times with the headline, “Pakistan Spy Service Aids Insurgents, Reports Assert.” The difference between the two papers’ coverage of the leak is plain to see: The Guardian focused on civilian casualties and The New York Times focused on the connection between Pakistan and the Taliban. For an interesting example from Johnson’s article:

“Of the twenty times the word “civilian” is used in The Times only nine uses are in reference to casualties resulting from combat operations (four of these are clustered in a single section midway down the page and two were at the hands of Afghan soldiers or police). The Guardian‘s coverage used the word “civilian” 41 times in their primary coverage and 37 of these uses referred specifically to civilian casualties (two cases occurred in each newspaper concerning hypothetical casualties and these have not been included). The difference between The Times and The Guardian is dramatic and represents a ratio of 2:1.”

Johnson goes on to explain that after he factored in the differences in word count between the two articles it became apparent that The New York Times had actually focused seven times less attention on civilian casualties than The Guardian. So, why is there such a discrepancy in the coverage?

Johnson writes that the fact that The New York Times chose not to emphasize civilian casualties, “suggests a political motive to avoid discussing the human impact of the war. This is consistent with the hypothesis that a close association between journalists and American political, economic, and military officials would influence reporters in the direction of those same officials.” In other words, this sort of bias is the inevitable result of journalists and editors constantly rubbing shoulders with (as well as needing to maintain access to) the very politicians they are theroretically supposed to be holding accountable.The New York Times’ own Note to Readers on July 25th reaffirms this hypothesis in that it reveals that the paper’s editors spoke with White House officials prior to making a decision regarding what they would publish.  This sort of voluntary censorship coupled with an article that almost completely omits what many believe to be the primary significance of The Afghan War Diary is disturbing to say the least. It would seem that the United State’s most prestigious newspaper is doing US government officials a favor by trying to garner public support for an increasingly unpopular war.

None of this is to say that The Guardian is a more honest paper. The fact of the matter is that if The Guardian were addressing an issue as central to British politics as the Afghanistan war is to politics in the United States you could probably expect a similar result. While it focused much more on the civilian casualties in Afghanistan, even The Guardian’s story dramatically underestimated the number of civilian deaths revealed in the documents. To quote Johnson again:

“In The Guardian‘s article entitled “Logs Reveal Grim Toll on Civilians” they state that the documents show “144 entries in the logs recording…hundreds of casualties.” However, this was only in the so-called “blue on white” events (those cases where US and NATO forces acknowledged firing on civilians). Further analysis of the data show that these are only a small percentage of the overall impact on the Afghan population. In the category labeled High Severity there are 1,539 pages including 50 military reports on each page. A search for CIV KIA (military code for civilians killed in action) among the first 5,000 reports brings a total of 796 hits. In other words, an average of one in six reports contains evidence of a civilian death, and most involve more than one.”

All of this demonstrates the incredible importance of what Julain Assange and WikiLeaks are doing. By releasing actual reports detailing what the war is really like as told by actual reports from coalition forces the American public is empowered to ask not only, why is the war in Afghanistan being spun to us? But also, who’s doing the spinning?

Written by Tiresias

August 4, 2010 at 4:55 pm