Monday, November 15, 2010

Framing and Decontextualization in Wikileaks’ “Collateral Murder”

Though the articles we read for this week focus more on mass media, new media such as Wikileaks can be analyzed using the same concepts of framing and decontextualization.

On April 5th, 2010, Wikileaks released a video called “Collateral Murder,” described as follows:

“Wikileaks has obtained and decrypted this previously unreleased video footage from a US Apache helicopter in 2007. It shows Reuters journalist Namir Noor-Eldeen, driver Saeed Chmagh, and several others as the Apache shoots and kills them in a public square in Eastern Baghdad. They are apparently assumed to be insurgents. After the initial shooting, an unarmed group of adults and children in a minivan arrives on the scene and attempts to transport the wounded. They are fired upon as well. The official statement on this incident initially listed all adults as insurgents and claimed the US military did not know how the deaths ocurred [sic]. Wikileaks released this video with transcripts and a package of supporting documents on April 5th 2010 on

In an interview with Julian Assange, founder and editor of Wikileaks, Stephen Colbert says: “You have edited this tape… and you have given it a title… called ‘Collateral Murder.’ That’s not leaking, that’s a pure editorial.” Assange responds: “The promise we make to our sources is that not only will we defend them, through every means that we have available… technological and legally and politically… but we will try and get the maximum possible political impact for the material.” However, he mentions that the site also released the full, unedited version to the public so that people of a differing opinion may analyze it themselves.

But Colbert others have pointed out that the edited version was much more heavily publicized. In fact (as of 11-15-10, 7:30 pm), the edited version had 7,594,756 views on You Tube, while the full 39-minute version had 1,187,767 views. Beyond that, one must also consider the millions of people that only saw clips of the video in television news reports, further decontextualizing the event. Furthermore, how many people have actually consulted the “package of supporting documents” on Wikileaks’ website? [I admit that I myself have not viewed the full version nor read any of the supporting information.]

Interestingly, the full video is posted with the following disclaimer: “Please note: This is a full uncut version of the video primarily intended for research purposes. See [the edited video] for a short and concise version with added context” (emphasis added). The “added context” refers to the subtitles and commentary that are provided to both situate and frame the event for “maximum political impact.” Clearly Wikileaks has an agenda, and the video fails to provide information about what happened directly before the attack, let alone the “political, economic, social and cultural relations of cause-and-effect” (Hafez, “International Reporting,” 35). For example, what might have occurred before the attack that lead the soldiers to perceive the minivan as a threat? The official U.S. military investigation reports that there was a black vehicle in the area that had been dropping off and picking up insurgents. Whatever the entire truth is, it is clear that Wikileaks is framing the tragic event in a way that supports the organization’s idea of “maximum political impact.”

Could “Collateral Murder” be considered an example of what el-Nawawy and Iskandar (2003) refer to as “contextual objectivity” in which the media present stories in a way that is “somewhat impartial yet sensitive to local sensibilities”? “Contextual objectivity” is an “audience-centered bias” where “all media deviate from the standard of objectivity by framing the facts of a given situation in ways that are socially accepted and expected amongst particular audiences” (Powers and el-Nawawy, 268). Yet Wikileaks, as an organization and not a mass media outlet, is not obligated to cater to its audience. However, it does frame its information to promote its agenda and gain the support of the public, which has the potential to influence politics.

Powers and el-Nawawy (2009) discuss how viewers choose to consume news that affirms their opinions rather than informs, and how news media tends to reinforce existing worldviews. As Hafez puts it, “the media follow rather than lead” (54). In the case of Wikileaks, a strict anti-war audience might be more likely to view the video as-is, as it affirms their opinions and provides supporting evidence. Others, whether supportive of the war or U.S. government policy in general, might consider the information untrustworthy and completely dismiss the video without considering the questions it raises. And low-dogmatic individuals (Davies, in Powers and el-Nawawy, 275) might be more likely to question the footage, perhaps reading the supporting documents or finding additional sources if the information presented conflicts with their opinions, as “the open nature of their cognitive systems allows them to see connections between belief and disbelief systems.”


Powers, Shawn and Mohammed el-Nawawy. “Al-Jazeera English and global news networks: clash of civilizations or cross-cultural dialogue?,” in Media, War & Conflict 2009 2: 263-284.

Hafez, Kai. “International Reporting,” in The Myth of Media Globalization. 24-55.

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