Newsweek and Unnamed Sources – With Deaths They Should Part

Unnamed sources are part of the news business. Without unnamed sources there would have been no Watergate, no Iran-Contra scandal, and no knowledge of Renee Zellweger’s marriage or Britney’s baby.

And without unnamed sources there would not have been the recent Newsweek story about U.S. soldiers desecrating copies of the Quran at Guantanamo Bay. There also may not have been at least 14 people dead in Afghanistan because of anti-American protests fueled in part by the article.

Certainly Newsweek can’t be blamed for how people may react to a story. I went into a deep depression once when the magazine gave a “down” arrow to The Wiggles, but I blamed Captain Feathersword for that one.

In the Guantanamo case, however, Newsweek is at least somewhat at fault. Why? Because the story, it turns out, was wrong. Or as some might say, “not entirely correct.”

Newsweek apologized for the story, which among other things claimed that military personnel had flushed a Quran down a toilet (funny, that’s usually where I read my Newsweek). But Mark Whitaker, Newsweek’s editor, stopped short of saying the magazine did anything wrong and defended the use of unnamed sources.

“Everybody did what they were supposed to do,” Whitaker said. “We were dealing with a
credible source….We approached officials for comment….We fully disclosed the whole chain of events so the public could reach its own conclusions,” he said. “I don’t see what we did professionally wrong in this case.”

What Newsweek did “wrong” is what too many journalists do, and that’s give protection to sources not because the sources are courageous, but because they are cowards. Going “off the record” allows sources to tell more than they may really know, and frees them from any consequences afterward. I agree with Dan Gillmor that using unnamed sources is a “shoddy practice” and should “generally stop.”

A quick mea culpa – I used unnamed sources when I was a reporter. I covered politics in California and Missouri, and there were times when allowing sources to go “off the record” was the only way I could have a fighting chance of beating the competition. But I often agonized over those decisions, and never slept very well when those stories hit the streets. The source had protection, but my name was the one in print.

Newsweek has opted for apologies over accuracy. The magazine can retract all it wants, but it doesn’t matter now. Retractions and half-hearted “my bads” are not going to make anyone in the Arab world believe the original story wasn’t the true version.

It’s interesting how just a matter of months ago some in the “mainstream media” were belittling citizen journalist bloggers for spreading rumors and not “fact checking” like “real” journalists. Some of those accusations may have been valid, but as far as I know, no one has been killed because of something written on a blog post. The “mainstream media” still has far greater power and influence – let’s hope they use it more wisely.

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