by Geoff Larcom, Published May 24, 2011
The recent WikiLeaks controversy represents a crucial step in citizen journalism, and its portrayal in the media largely depends on the age and ideology of the reporting newspaper, TV station or online site, a graduate class at Eastern Michigan University concludes in a recent research project.
The project, entitled "WikiLeaks: Will The Public Remember?" grew out of fast-paced research this past semester by seven students in criminology professor Gregg Barak's graduate-level class in "Media, Crime, and Justice." The project has already been featured on the major research blog, Crime Talk. http://www.crimetalk.org.uk/
The controversy stemmed from two confidential, raw document caches published on the WikiLeaks website in 2010. One is a string of military intelligence reports from U.S. troops in Afghanistan dubbed the "Afghan War Diary," the other a series of sensitive diplomatic cables from various government embassies around the world that described various world leaders in negative terms.
Founder Julian Assange says that WikiLeaks "creates a better society for all people ... [producing] reduced corruption and stronger democracies."
Yet affected governments predictably take the opposite position, saying that the leaked documents harm international relations and can endanger undercover agents.
The EMU project team includes Steven Navarro, Chris Jenkins, Michele Kuzila, Robert Zaremba, Crystal Muthleb, Ryan Helms, and Michaelena Creamer.
The group sought to explore differences in content and in issue framing, or what is commonly called "spin," between long-established media sources such as newspapers and magazines vs. new media sources such as blogs or recently established TV sources.
Barak said the project is crucial in that it represents an early attempt by a group of researchers - notably students in this case - to conduct a comprehensive, comparative analysis of media framing of a new, globally significant communications issue.
The group also asked if the issue was framed consistently and negatively enough to create what is called a moral panic - an overwhelming tide of ethical concern - or whether Assange was consistently labeled as a "folk devil," a research term that connotes an evil figure who poses a large-scale danger to society.
The group examined 360 media pieces from November 2010 to February 2011. Media outlets included The New York Times, The New York Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, Newsweek, US News and World Report, The Washington Post, liberal and conservative blogs, MSNBC, FOX, CNN, ACLU Online, and the Lawfare Blog.
Among the group's findings:
• Digital media were much more receptive than television and newspapers to WikiLeaks. Those who produce and also consume such new media were more open to such coverage.
• About 77 percent of media entities did not represent Assange as a folk devil, although nearly half of the content examined depicted WikiLeaks or Assange negatively.
• Nearly half of the 360 data sources relayed a negative tone towards WikiLeaks or Assange. Seventeen percent had a positive tone and the rest were neutral.
• A moral panic was not present, nor was there a media-wide attempt at the creation of one, despite the fact that deliberately provocative conservative voices such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin equated Assange's actions with terrorist threats.
• The tone of new media outlets reflected their conservative or liberal affiliation. Liberal sources exhibited a pro-WikiLeaks stance, noting governing values such as First and Fourth Amendment rights and the traditional watchdog element of public-service journalism. Conservative sources often associated WikiLeaks with a threat to security.
• The EMU group noted how media framing often produces varied perceptions of the same event. "In the case of Julian Assange, his sexual assault proceedings can be presented either as the man who leaked government secrets also turning out to be a sick, sexual deviant, or as the whistleblower transformed into a political target, resulting in trumped-up charges at the behest of irate international leaders," the group's report said.
Along a similar line, EMU student Navarro notes how Barack Obama's administration has been fascinated by the Internet's potential to challenge the status quo elsewhere, but held no such enthusiasm for its effects at home.
"President Obama skillfully used YouTube to address the Iranian, and Egyptian people, " Navarro said in an email about the project. "But the reason the conflict between WikiLeaks and the U.S. government is a crucial event is that, unlike these other functions of technology to politics, this time the free flow of information is threatening the establishment with difficult questions.
"And that's not by embarrassing one politician or bureaucrat, but by exposing systemic details of how America conducts its foreign and military policies.
"Yet instead of an honest debate about what the war logs and cables tell us about how our system works, we have been treated to a strange and contradictory set of responses."
Navarro, a master's student in criminology from Adrian who is considering attending law school, said the meaning of the findings extends far beyond how WikiLeaks is regarded. The finding hold particular relevance, given estimates that by 2014, about 150 million Americans, or 60 percent of the U.S. Internet population, will read blogs on a monthly basis, the group noted.
Barak and group members said the project was energizing because of its timing, immediacy and challenge.
"Finding the right topic was a key," Barak said. "Rather than a tedious project, the effort became dynamic and animated because the controversy was happening in real time."
Kuzila, a master's criminology student who works as a sergeant for the Southfield Police Department, said that quickly trying to analyze and synthesize the data and media perspectives into a seamless final report tested the group's scholarly abilities.
"The team worked through these challenges by offering constructive critiques and produced a product that should stimulate and foster additional research," she said.
Barak said the project exemplified peer learning, where the students' interactions and its give and take became a natural opportunity for the group to teach one another.
"It was fascinating to read the last minute e-mail exchanges of the students and how they pulled together, despite their different orientations, takes and perspectives," Barak said. "It was fun and satisfying to see them grow individually and collectively."
The group concluded that during a time and place where investigative journalism has almost vanished, WikiLeaks has reenergized the trend, yet represents just part of the citizenry's potential to report on its government.
"The Age of Transparency is here not because of one international online network keen to open information and whistle blowing called WikiLeaks, but because the knowledge of how to build and maintain such networks is widespread," Navarro said in an e-mail describing the project. "This kind of far-reaching transparency is scientifically feasible - like it or not, it is a given. Efforts to stop it will fail, just as efforts to stop file-sharing by killing Napster or Netflix failed."
Given that, the EMU students pointed up the need for more vigorous conversation of how the Internet can become a truly free public space and a global village where everybody can articulate ideas and opinions.
Concluded the group: "We must transition to an Internet whose core design is really free of government or corporate power, as decentralized and uncontainable as life itself."