Newsweek :: Retraction of Koran Story

Normally, I’d stay away from this kind of story until after it is resolved. I have not read other blogs and their reaction to this story. I have read news reports about their reactions. Let’s just stick to ‘best practices’ in journalism for our little exercise.

Today, Newsweek took one step toward resolving part of the story. Although, I bet there will be more to come.

On Monday afternoon, May 16, Whitaker issued the following statement: Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Qur’an abuse at Guantanamo Bay. (Source)

(Note: Mark Whitaker is Editor of Newsweek)

There are lessons to be learned from the Newsweek “Periscope” story re: Qur’an desecration.

Newsweek ran a story citing one anonymous source and provided no evidence to support the story’s claims. Also, they ran the story without the confirmation of a solid second source. In stories of this magnitude, it would be wise (if not common practice) to have two solid confirmations. Newsweek asked questions of two outside sources. Newsweek reports that “before deciding whether to publish it we approached two separate Defense Department officials for comment. One declined to give us a response; the other challenged another aspect of the story but did not dispute the Qur’an charge.” Their original source was taken at their word.

Let us not forget these two points:

  1. No tangible evidence was provided by the original source. Their statement was based upon something they said they read.
  2. No one confirmed the story, backing up the original source, to Newsweek.

Add to this, the reality that such a fiery topic might actually be used as fuel/ammunition in Iraq and Afghanistan, and you might agree that such a story should at least require a news organization to have at least two confirmed/verifiable sources. Is that really too much to ask? No.

Riots did take place and were fueled, in part, by the report. People died. American forces were placed in danger by the actions of extremists using the article as inflammatory fodder for their causes. More on that later.

Look at the recent scandals in journalism that have resulted in firings.

New York Times – Jason Blair. No one died. The paper was severely damaged by the scandal.
CBS News – Dan Rather/Mary Mapes. No one died. The network was severely damaged by the scandal.

Want to go back further? How about Mike Barnicle – Boston Globe.

And, what of other recent scandals that didn’t result in firings (at least, yet). How about the Detroit Free Press and Mitch Albom. Read their internal report.

This instance at Newsweek is much worse, in my opinion.

There are some truly big problems facing journalism and public relations these days. From VNRs to ‘pay for play’ placement and over-billing in public relations to unattributed quotes, false evidence and totally falsified stories in print and broadcast journalism – the time has come for firm action on the part of all PR and journalism institutions. Regain your credibility.

This story goes much deeper than all of the above. Revenues and readership is down in print. Circulation scandals have hampered them, too. Television audiences have become fragmented and will likely continue to do just that. Media conglomerates pound away at a need for higher profits. Non-media and non-PR holding companies and investors are now in charge of much of the two field’s biggest players. They are not beholden (vapid protestations to the contrary, aside) to the principles and ethics that both fields have held up as models.

It will take very strong leadership for ethics to win in this battle. My biggest fear? That the battle is already lost for many of the players.

I will not say that “Newsweek caused people to die” in the ensuing riots. I will say that, as Newsweek reported, “Imran Khan, a Pakistani cricket legend and strident critic of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf” (Source) used the story by “Brandishing a copy of that week’s NEWSWEEK (dated May 9)” and stated:

“This is what the U.S. is doing,” exclaimed Khan, “desecrating the Qur’an.” His remarks, as well as the outraged comments of Muslim clerics and Pakistani government officials, were picked up on local radio and played throughout neighboring Afghanistan. Radical Islamic foes of the U.S.-friendly regime of Hamid Karzai quickly exploited local discontent with a poor economy and the continued presence of U.S. forces, and riots began breaking out last week. (Source)

You might say that I am splitting hairs on this, but let’s not forget that riots were already happening. The article did not reveal new allegations. Rumors of this type of thing had been reported in the Philadelphia paper and elsewhere. Those reports were based upon prisoner claims. The only new aspect of Newsweek’s story was that they now had a government source confirming the story.

Newsweek is a prominent national publication. Their publication of the allegations, along with the claim (now denied) that there was confirmation, is the main issue here. Newsweek was wrong. Their reporting was negligent.

Also, I don’t know if the reporters for Newsweek have a pro, or con, view of the Iraq conflict. I don’t know if they have an agenda. I don’t care. Any reporter, and editor, should be able to recognize such a story as potentially inflammatory and make sure they have it right before they write. Period. Of course, they should try and do that on every story, shouldn’t they.

Given the shoddy reporting, Michael Isikoff and John Barry (the reporters of the story) should lose their jobs. The wrong is further exacerbated by the delay in responding by verifying (or retracting) the story. And where were the editors so often cited by MSM to differentiate themselves from citizen journalists? So, others – like editors – should also lose their jobs. The editor with direct responsibility for Periscope should also lose their job.

Related Stories: NYTimes | Poynter – Romenesko”>Poynter | Poynter: Between Apology and Retraction | Flushing Newsweek | ABC News | CANCELLED – Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker: “Choices in an Age of 24-7 News” | Online NewsHour: Newsweek Retracts Flawed Quran Report — May 16, 2005 | WSJ.com – Journalists and the Military.

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