How Wikileaks collaborations failed to create objective ‘global’ journalism – research

Truth, they say, is the first casualty of war. Or, as an academic might put it:

“Professional journalism takes the nation as its unit of analysis, which [means] journalists employ ‘‘closed’’ language with respect to international issues when the nation is perceived as threatened, encouraging the citizen to read world events and issues from ‘‘our’’ point of view.”

This is the scene set at the start of Robert L. Handley‘s research into collaborative cross-border journalism. Handley wants to tackle the question of whether “global journalism” can result in the more objective outlook that its proponents hope for.

The partnerships that sprung up around Wikileaks‘s warlogs and cables provide an ideal way to explore that.

Europe vs the US

The overriding finding of Handley’s research is a difference in how European and US newspapers handled the Wikileaks material. European papers, he argues, “behaved as loyal to the nation-as-citizen and, more broadly, to citizens-wherever,” but the reporting of US partner The New York Times “demonstrated a loyalty to nation-as-official.”:

“The Times stressed its independence from other papers to prove its loyalty to American national security concerns, adopting the rhetoric of American officials who framed WikiLeaks as a national security threat. From the start, it read the cables from a national security perspective:

“Although it is our aim to be impartial in our presentation of the news, our attitude toward these issues is far from indifferent. The journalists at The Times have a large and personal stake in the country’s security. We live and work in a city that has been tragically marked as a favorite terrorist target, and in the wake of 9/11 our journalists plunged into the ruins to tell the story of what happened there.” (Keller 2011)”

In contrast, in Spain the editor of El Pais “repeatedly stressed his paper’s responsibility to a public beyond the nation-state”,


Watchdogging other governments

Notably the watchdog function was also adopted in different ways either side of the Atlantic. The New York Times limited its watchdog role to “the rest of the world [was reported] as it impacted on ‘‘our’’ taken-for-granted global interests and behaviors around the globe’ [and] American allies’ failures in facilitating the US war on terrorism”. The US was portrayed as ‘‘trying to have its way with a ‘recalcitrant world’’.

In Europe the watchdog role was adopted differently, as leaks “helped journalists criticize national officials.”

Handley is clear that the issue here is not whether Wikileaks material related to the US, and how newspapers handled that material, but about how news organisations used the material to hold their own government officials to account.

“It is true that the European papers saw publishing as an obligation to the world’s citizens. But it is very apparent that the papers constructed – and looked to construct – ‘our’ stories out of the cables. The difference is that the European papers employed the cables to watchdog US and European officials who violated citizen sovereignty whereas the Times employed the cables to affirm its allegiance to US officials.” (my emphasis)

“The European papers also protected the nation, but they protected it via the citizens’ point of view, suggesting that the ‘‘domestic glasses’’ that journalists wear have different tints.”

Crucially, Handley argues that how The New York Times’ handled the Wikileaks material:

“[Indicates that] its allegiance to the state and its interpretations is voluntary and not the result of a lack of information.”

It’s a fascinating piece of research which clearly needs a second European nation-focused case study to complement it.

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