In Doubt for the Scoop

May 21, 2005 • Public Relations • by

Der Tagesspiegel, May 21, 2007

The Newsweek Case:  The Value of Anonymous Sources and “Informed Circles”
The Newsweek report about the Koran defilement in the U.S. military prison of Guantanamo has demonstrated, once again, how powerful the influence of the media can be.  More than a dozen dead because of anti-American protests in Afghanistan, in reaction to the news, won’t be brought back to life just because the head editorial office of the news magazine has in the meantime – quite shoddily – apologized to the next of kin. 

Still, it is psychologically understandable that Newsweek would not let it be said that the editorial staff let someone else have a story because it hesitated.  The dishonour of losing the story about President Clinton’s affair with his intern, Monica Lewinsky, discovered by internet reporter Matt Drudge, because the corresponding  Newsweek story was not yet fully researched by editorial deadline, was hardly forgotten.
But:  Was the story about the Koran in the toilet really a scoop? That prison guards would humiliate  those entrusted to them in this or in any other way is probably not an isolated incident in this world – either in American prisons or elsewhere. To have made such a fuss over the Koran defilement demonstrates a  lack of power of judgement, especially when one has relied upon a single anonymous source.  
On the other hand, it is naïve to denounce the use of such sources by the media. Without “informed circles”, without specific indiscretions from adepts who remain in the dark, critical journalism that occasionally uncovers scandals and watches our polititians so closely is unthinkable. What is important, however, is that each journalist who collaborates with anonymous sources is aware of the danger of being used. He who doesn’t wish to simply spread rumours should ask to be given documents or at least look for a second informant who can confirm the first person’s information. It is not at all easy to play fairly when the competition is so fierce to be the first one to have a ‘story’.
It’s even more difficult because journalists enjoy collaborating furtively with anonymous informers – and in doing so, deceive their readers or even pretend to be closely involved with the political system. Of course, the public has a right to learn where information comes from.  Geneva Overholser also pointed this out. She is somewhat the Joan of Arc of American journalism, since, as the editor-in-chief of a big local newspaper, she threw in the towel because her corporate superiors reduced the editorial budget year after year, although the newspaper was making a good profit.  As the ombudswoman of the Washington Post, she later attacked star reporter Bob Woodward in her own newspaper and accused him of  collaborating far too often with anonymous informers. The New York Times recently took up up the theme again.  In an inside report it was likewise ascertained that credibility was undermined when there were too many news reports lacking solid sources.
The retraction of Anonymous, from somewhere high up in the American political system, is strange, however.  He distanced himself from his own statement, while in the meantime, the Red Cross in Geneva upheld its own original statement and then reported several incidents in which the U.S. military had desecrated the Koran in Guantanamo in the years 2002 and 2003.  
There is one more detail which everyone who is attacking Newsweek now, especially the us government, has probably overlooked:  The journalists had submitted their report to two PR people in the Pentagon; the first one refused to take a position, the second one objected to a part of the text, but not to the paragraph about the Koran defilement. The Newsweek report was approved by the Department of Defense.
Perhaps we shouldn’t take the powerful effects of the media too lightly.  Who sows hate, shall reap hate – and Newsweek didn’t sow this hate. Those responsible for the deaths in Afghanistan are the Islamic fundamentalists who killed them, and the no less fundamentalist narrow-minded  Christian warriors, who govern in Washington and pressure liberal media who don’t follow their guidelines, with their crusades.
Whoever, like Newsweek, has bad news to deliver, should do something that is still prohibited amongst journalists: think over the possible impact of a publication and judge whether there is really a public interest in the particular incident: it was predictable that worldwide, journalists would judge the Koran defilement to be an important news story, although this episode probably didn’t deserve so much attention. For certain, it contrasts strangely to the fact of how little the media, as the fourth state power, have been upset by this situation up until now.  The real scandal is that for years, in Guantanamo, people were abused by the U.S. government without any legal basis whatsoever, and that they they were stripped of their freedom  – against all declarations of human rights.
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