LEAKED VIDEO SHOWS CIVILIAN KILLINGS IN IRAQ, SIGNIFIES GROWING POWER OF INDEPENDENT WEB JOURNALISM

MEDIA, 12 Apr 2010

Brett Michael Dykes, Yahoo! News – TRANSCEND Media Service

When a nonprofit group this week released video footage, leaked via a source in the Pentagon, showing a 2007 U.S. helicopter attack on a group of civilians in Baghdad, the clip unleashed a viral online sensation and ignited an intense debate about the conduct of U.S. forces in Iraq.

But the simple fact of the video’s release also reflects the ongoing revolution in how news gets produced and published.

The group, called WikiLeaks, released the Pentagon video on Monday. Less than 24 hours later, the clip had netted more than 1.3 million viewers on YouTube alone.

The transmission of information, in and out of regularly authorized channels, has become much more immediate — and far more viral — than at any point in history. Virtually anyone with a browser and a DSL connection can now bring news to light in dramatic and instantaneous fashion. All these trends converged with the WikiLeaks video.

Seven noncombatants were killed in the Baghdad attack — among them a driver (Saeed Chmagh) and photographer (Namir Noor-Eldeen) employed by the Reuters news service. Reuters, indeed, had been seeking to obtain internal Pentagon materials pertaining to the attack — including the footage that went online yesterday — for the past three years, using the Freedom of Information Act. The agency’s efforts had so far proved fruitless.

And that’s where WikiLeaks came in. The nonprofit website launched in 2006 as an online clearinghouse for whistleblowers seeking to publicize leaked government documents across the world. But prior to posting the video footage, the site had functioned as repository of information; with this latest scoop, which it says came from “a courageous source” within the U.S. military, it has morphed into an investigative news source in its own right. (The full 18-minute video can be viewed — albeit with the clear warning that the material is quite disturbing — at the special project URL that WikiLeaks established for it, under the incendiary name of collateralmurder.com.)

“The material was encrypted with a code, and we broke the code,” WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told wired.com. “In terms of journalism efficiency, I think we discovered a lot with a small amount of resources.”

But this was much more than a question of cracking an encryption code from a renegade PC. WikiLeaks also reported the story the old-fashioned way — by sending two reporters to Baghdad to research the 2007 incident. The group says its correspondents verified the story by interviewing witnesses and family members of people killed and injured in the attack. These accounts helped to flesh out the gaps in the official account of the incident; as the materials at CollateralMurder.com explain, the “military did not reveal how the Reuters staff were killed, and stated that they did not know how the children were injured.” And now that silence is starting to abate: In response to the release of the WikiLeaks video, the Pentagon has circulated some documents relating to the incident, and MSNBC reported this morning that American soldiers mistook a camera held by one of the fallen journalists for a weapon.

Still, the release of the video has also drawn criticism — not so much for the broader WikiLeaks mission of promoting government transparency, but for the site’s failure to supply a fuller context to help viewers better understand what they’re seeing. A former helicopter pilot and photographer named A.J. Martinez, for example, has dissected the footage on his blog, and attacked the site’s packaging of the footage as misleading — and making it seem like the Apache unit was acting out of cold-blooded malice rather than genuine confusion about a possible ground attack taking shape below. “There are many veterans with thousands of hours experience in both analyzing aerial video and understanding the oft-garbled radio transmissions between units,” he writes, adding that it would not be unreasonable for the WikiLeaks staff to solicit such interpretive input for concerned vets. “Promoting truth with gross errors is just as shameful as unnecessary engagement” on the field of battle, Martinez concludes.

Yahoo! News contacted Reuters for comment, and a Reuters spokeswoman directed us to their story on the episode, in addition to providing us with the following statement:

“The deaths of Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh three years ago were tragic and emblematic of the extreme dangers that exist in covering war zones. We continue to work for journalist safety and call on all involved parties to recognise the important work that journalists do and the extreme danger that photographers and video journalists face in particular,” said David Schlesinger, editor-in-chief of Reuters news. “The video released today via WikiLeaks is graphic evidence of the dangers involved in war journalism and the tragedies that can result.”

Meanwhile, WikiLeaks appears to be far from done. The group is openly soliciting donations to defray the expenses involved in the upcoming release of another video that allegedly documents other civilian deaths at the hands of the U.S. military, this time in Afghanistan.

Update: Greg Sargent, at the Washington Post’s Plumline, reports that the Pentagon is preparing to issue an official response in the wake of the leaked video.

Brett Michael Dykes is a national affairs writer for Yahoo! News.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 12 Apr 2010.

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