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May 17 2005

My cup overfloweth!

So much to write about this week! YAY! Let’s start with one of my favorite subjects though, bad journalism.

You all know I must be talking about the Newsweek article that reportedly led to 15 deaths in riots in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Now, Newsweek is retracting the story, and commenting on the why of what happened. The most important part is:

Two weeks ago, in our issue dated May 9, Michael Isikoff and John Barry reported in a brief item in our Periscope section that U.S. military investigators had found evidence that American guards at the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had committed infractions in trying to get terror suspects to talk, including in one case flushing a Qur’an down a toilet. 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.

I really am not going to comment on the subject of the original story, that is for everyone to figure out their feelings on their own. What I am commenting on though is the journalistic ethics on display here.

First mistake – They had one source on this story. They took a no comment, and a comment on another section of the article, but not the Qur’an portion as a confirmation. That is a weak, weak basis to a story. On a story of this magnitude you do not run it without at least two confirmations. This is a story with the ability to set major actions in motion, and it did, but they ran it with one anonymous source. Yes, good chance they knew the source, good for them, it will still a major accusation with only one confirmed source, that is just a bad choice for any writer.

Second mistake – Read this portion

“Last Friday, a top Pentagon spokesman told us that a review of the probe cited in our story showed that it was never meant to look into charges of Qur’an desecration. The spokesman also said the Pentagon had investigated other desecration charges by detainees and found them “not credible.” Our original source later said he couldn’t be certain about reading of the alleged Qur’an incident in the report we cited, and said it might have been in other investigative documents or drafts. Top administration officials have promised to continue looking into the charges, and so will we. But we regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst.”

Well, your source now wavers, never a good thing, but the biggest insult? One sentence. One lousy sentence for 15 lives killed over something that could never be 100% confirmed without a doubt. “But we regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst.” Just look at that sentence. It is empty…meaningless. It should read something more to the effect of:

We at Newsweek deeply regret the violence that our lazy, lackluster reporting skills caused. We will no longer run a story based on one source and assume lack of comment does not constitute a confirmation. And the writer of the article, Michael Isikoff, will be made to pay for his screw up.

Oh yeah, did I mention no discipline is planned for the writer, Michael Isikoff ? Well none is planned. Nope, apparently you are no longer punished when you fail your job miserably and cost 15 people their lives. Good to know.

It is time for the media to stop being concerned with who gets a story out first/ I would much rather have accurate reporting that results in no deaths thank you!



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Journalism