Sunday, April 11, 2010

The WikiLeaks video: Poor Advocacy, Bad Journalism

The gun-camera video of the 2007 killing of two Reuters journalists in Iraq by US Apache helicopters has now been viewed and reviewed ad nauseam (although worthily by colleague Cruiseologist, below).

WikiLeaks – the Sweden-based organization that recently released the footage of the killings – claims to have done so under the journalistic prerogative to tell the truth, to bust through the military’s supposed cover-up of the situation. But WikiLeaks chose to deceptively frame the video with loaded words and an emotional preamble, selectively tag cameras but not weapons in the video, and allow the reductive power of the camera to tell an emotional but inaccurate story.

By doing so, it degraded its claim to be an objective journalistic organization and makes itself look hypocritical for accusing the US military of any sort of cover up and spin. WikiLeaks could have simply released the full footage and let others do the analysis, or it could have released the video as part of a larger package that unveiled the context of the situation. Wikileaks recently added more information to its special “Collateral Murder” website home for the video, but its additional information is by turns helpful and highly misleading.

What WikiLeaks has done is not journalism but advocacy, and poor advocacy at that, since the video is clearly meant to drive viewers to feelings of frustration and outrage instead of a constructive response or a policy suggestion.

Here are some sources WikiLeaks could have included to provide context:

With added context, the situation gets more complex:

  • The troops: The troops on the ground had been in a running battle all day with adversaries sniping at them from the streets and the rooftops of the neighborhood they were attempting to clear. The group of Iraqis that included the two Reuters employees was less than 100 yards away from the US troops, located just down the street.
  • The cameraman: The Reuters employees had not expected to be photographing the US troops that day, and were not wearing any distinctive press markings or body armor. The Reuters cameraman crouched and aimed his long-lens camera around the corner of a building, looking down the street toward a Humvee of the US troops. This was viewed by the pilots as a particularly provocative act. The cameraman’s photos recovered later illustrated how near he was to the US troops. Insurgents often use camera and video operators to record their attacks on US troops. Also, the camera angle, appearance aiming was similar to that of a weapon. They call it “shooting” a camera for a reason.
  • The Iraqi crowd: Those crowding around the journalists included local residents who were likely hoping to start an impromptu demonstration for the cameras. Several of those in the group were holding weapons – including an AKM rifle, a rocket-propelled grenade round, and an RPG launcher. One of the dead was identified by the US ground troops as someone who had been firing at the unit throughout the day, although local residents said all of those around the cameraman were locals not fighting US troops.
  • The van: The van was driven by a local resident who meant no harm, but hoped to save lives by picking up the injured and taking them away for treatment. The children in the van were not seen by the helicopter gunners, whose in-cockpit screens are much smaller than that available to the investigators. The two children survived the attack after initial treatment at FOB Loyalty, not simply transported to an Iraqi healthcare facility offering possibly a lower standard of care, as WikiLeaks took pain to claim.

While this mass of information is a lot to digest, it provides crucial context which a good journalist would want to use to flesh out what happened in Baghdad that day. Yes, some of it was not released until after WikiLeaks released its video. But if that information was not available, that is all the more reason for WikiLeaks to simply release the full video without adornments and commentary or dig for more information.

WikiLeaks did not use such information. Instead, it went for the emotional cheap shot by front-loading the viewers video with hindsight knowledge and framing it as evidence of murder. Such poor journalism only clouds the discussion and hinders a discussion of the larger moral, ethical and military questions regarding this situation and the war. These are important questions and worth discussing. Instead, WikiLeaks triggered another round of emotional back-and-forth with few policy implications.

WikiLeaks should be shamed for misleading viewers of the video, showing great disrespect for the standards maintained by the journalists who died in the attack, and adding to the tragedy of the death of the innocent.

That is not good journalism. That is not telling the truth.

1 comment:

quotha said...

here's a good update on this story - an interview with a soldier on the ground who saved one of the injured children