When a Story Goes Terribly Wrong

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AIJAZ RAHI / AP

DEMAND FOR ACTION: For more than a week, the Pentagon didn't complain about the Newsweek allegation of Koran abuse until protests, like this one in Bombay, began to spread throughout the Islamic world

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Despite the potential problems with anonymous sources, news organizations aren't likely to stop using them anytime soon. There are too many people with essential information who are afraid to go public, sometimes out of fear of losing their jobs. (At present, TIME is defending in the courts the refusal of its correspondent Matthew Cooper to disclose one of his sources to a federal grand jury.) But many in the media, amid periodic waves of criticism, are re-examining how often to use unnamed sources. Some publications now are more aggressive about getting sources to agree to be identified. After the fall of USA Today's Kelley, who had fabricated quotes, people and whole scenes, the paper adopted more stringent guidelines to ensure that anonymous sources be used only as a last resort and that their identity be made known to a senior editor. Some papers, including the Washington Post, routinely state in their stories why a source has declined to go on the record. Says Leonard Downie Jr., the Post's executive editor: "Then the readers can judge for themselves what to make of that information, the sources' motivation and our effort to get that information on the record." Whitaker says Newsweek is now strengthening its guidelines, adding: "We will have something to say about that very soon."

The magazine compounded its mistakes when reporter John Barry took the story to the Pentagon for confirmation and assumed he had it when the Pentagon did not raise objections to the Koran allegation. The Defense Department's silence, however, didn't amount to confirmation.

"There's a famous scene in the book All the President's Men," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and former chief congressional correspondent for Newsweek. "Bernstein says to a source, 'If I count to whatever, and you stay on the phone and don't say anything, then I know the story is right.' Well, that's the story Woodward and Bernstein got wrong in Watergate."

There are some who argue that because of the story's potential to harm the U.S. abroad, Newsweek should not have published it, even if it were true. Robert Zelnick, chairman of Boston University's journalism department and a former Pentagon correspondent for ABC News, draws a distinction between Abu Ghraib, where there was a systematic pattern of prisoner abuse, and the allegation of an isolated act of Koran desecration at Guantanamo, however deplorable.

"In this case," he says, "I think the potential for mischief was so great and the journalistic value of the information so small that I would have made a decision not to go with it."

Zelnick acknowledges that that's a minority view in the news business. What most journalists are trying to take away from the debacle is a clearer sense of how best to report the news. It appears that some lessons, basic as they might be, need to be relearned. As a chastened Whitaker told TIME, "You have to be prepared to defend the accuracy of everything that appears in the magazine—no matter how short."

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