Newsweek's Fungible Editorial Standards

Andrew Sullivan, citing Daily Kos blogger SusanHu finding other allegations of Koran desecration, misses the point of the Newsweek Koran story by a country mile. The point is not that such allegations existed; it is that Newsweek reported that a US government investigation had (or would) conclude that such event took place.

No one (to my knowledge) is arguing a few detainees (and/or their lawyers) hadn’t made allegations concerning Koran desecration, yet Sullivan implies that those charges somehow lend credence to Newsweek’s shabby reporting. Sullivan then gets swept up in the “look at all the other prisoner abuse stories” mentality that presumably led Newsweek to run with such a poorly sourced report.

Jay Rosen, at PressThink, examines the story sourcing to show just how incredibly thin it was.

Newsweek, which I will call S1 for our first level source, and for which we have names (Michael Isikoff, Mark Whitaker, John Barry) said that it had sources (S2) without names, who in turn said that other sources (S3) also without names, working as investigators for the government, have learned enough from their sources (S4), likewise unnamed, to conclude in a forthcoming report for U.S. Southern Command (finally, a name!) that unnamed interrogators (S5) dumped the Qur’an into toilets to make a point with prisoners (S6) who are Muslims but also not named.

And as Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker explained, what made this nameless, formless, virtually fact-free item newsworthy was not the “toilet” imagery itself, or some of the other equally revolting allegations, which had been reported numerous times before, but the “fact” that for the first time a government source (that would be S2) said it.

“The fact that a knowledgeable source within the U.S. government was telling us the government itself had knowledge of this was newsworthy,” Whitaker said in an interview with Howard Kurtz.A point, apparently, totally lost on Sullivan.

Mark Tapscott analyzes the reporting and editing of the story, and finds it fundamentally flawed.

For whatever reason, it appears Newsweek’s reporters and editors forgot Journalism 101’s First Rule: If you don’t have two independently verifiable sources for a serious allegation the publication of which could seriously damage or destroy an individual’s reputation, put somebody in of physical danger or place public safety at risk, don’t publish it.

Notice how Whitaker describes what his two reporters did to establish independently of the lone source’s credibility: “Their information came from a knowledgeable U.S. government source, and 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.

Read that last sentence again because it is a damaging admission of gross journalistic error. Neither DOD official verified Newsweek’s lone source. One of the two Pentagon officials approached by Newsweek even raised a question about related information apparently provided by the lone source. But Newsweek published the Koran flushing allegation anyway. Surely that decision violated the magazine’s own editing standards.When a major national publication is willing to ditch its own editorial standards for the possibility of a minor scoop; “big journalism” is in far greater trouble than even its harshest critics imagined.

Koran-In-The-Crapper Scorecard - Drudge Edition
Pulling a boner

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