On May 9, Newsweek magazine published an article in which it stated that American interrogators at the Guantánamo Bay military base in Cuba had desecrated the Koran, the Muslim holy book, by placing copies of it on toilet seats. The article farther stated that one copy was flushed down the toilet. Newsweek wrote that it had received the information from “sources,” implying that several people testified to its veracity. The story triggered riots in several Muslim countries including Afghanistan and Pakistan. The riots are reported to have killed 17 people.
After the Pentagon said that it could find no evidence to support the claims, Newsweek retracted the story and now admits it was not based on multiple sources, but only on one unnamed source who did not witness the alleged desecration but who had supposedly read about it in government documents. Now says Newsweek even that source is not sure what he read about the alleged desecration.
Basing an accusation of the desecration of the Koran on what one source claims to have remembered without verifying it is sloppy journalism to say the least. In this case, it is highly irresponsible given the tensions between the Muslim world and the West and the cost in human life. However, even the best news publications can have lapses in judgment. Newsweek could perhaps be forgiven if the magazine’s management had made a sincere apology and promised to adhere to journalistic norms from now on. But, it has not done that. Even while retracting the story, Newsweek has been busily evading its responsibility. Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker said that the magazine “behaved professionally” in producing the story and that before publication it had showed the story to a Pentagon official who did not object to the allegation about the desecration of the Koran.
Mr. Whitaker, basing an inflammatory accusation on information that a single source may have read in a report is not professional behavior! Nor is it sufficient to show the story to a Pentagon official who may not have the information at hand to dispute it. Journalism requires that facts be checked. Statements that are made by a single person and cannot be verified are suspect and should not be reported. Additionally, there is a name for editors who make questionable statements appear reliable by falsely claiming that they are based on “sources.” Such people are called liars.
Much of the world believes that mainstream Western news media cannot be trusted. These people will suspect that Newsweek reported the truth originally and recanted under government pressure. Newsweek’s behavior will seem to them to confirm their belief that Western news organizations are mouthpieces for Western governments. Newsweek has given journalism a bad name. The damage that Newsweek has done cannot be repaired. However, to avoid such unprofessional conduct in the future, it is time for Newsweek to make an honest apology and to take steps toward honest reporting.