Unlike politicians, reporters need facts

The devastating impact of a report in Newsweek illustrates the demands that the press is under
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Media reports can have consequences, as Newsweek, the prestigious American weekly news magazine, has learnt to its cost. Not that this will have come as any kind of revelation to the sort of journalists who run Newsweek, or any other serious journalistic enterprise. Journalism does not have to have attitude or be overtly campaigning to be influential. It can influence by simply telling it like it is, reporting. Of course it is seldom so simple. Newsweek told it like it believed it was; only it wasn't. Or so Newsweek had to admit.

Media reports can have consequences, as Newsweek, the prestigious American weekly news magazine, has learnt to its cost. Not that this will have come as any kind of revelation to the sort of journalists who run Newsweek, or any other serious journalistic enterprise. Journalism does not have to have attitude or be overtly campaigning to be influential. It can influence by simply telling it like it is, reporting. Of course it is seldom so simple. Newsweek told it like it believed it was; only it wasn't. Or so Newsweek had to admit.

Bald facts first, in itself problematic, since in this case the "facts" were variously and sequentially reported, contested, defended, withdrawn and retracted; so that they were no longer facts, but falsehoods, or so some said. So, Newsweek ran an article saying that US interrogators at Guantanamo Bay had put pressure on Muslim detainees by flushing a copy of the Koran down a toilet. Desecrating the holy book of Islam is the most serious of crimes, and reaction to the report as it moved around the world was extreme in some places, most notably Afghanistan where at least 17 died in the street protests.

The Washington administration condemned the Newsweek article in the strongest terms (significantly, 10 days after publication), calling its journalism "highly irresponsible".

Then came the apology followed by the retraction from Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker. There had been one anonymous source for the story, a usually reliable government source who said that a military report would disclose details of the Koran abuse. But this source had now backed away from his story and was no longer standing by it. The article was also shown to a US official who would not confirm or deny its authenticity.

So we have another post-Iraq war case of a media organisation having to eat humble pie and endure the self-righteousness and moral indignation of government. This is difficult for journalists and those who opposed the war, because they believe the evidence of the US and British governments lying over the war denies them the right to the high ground. It becomes a battle of strength, with media and government trying to discredit each other. Public attitudes that both estates have little integrity are reinforced along the way.

Governments can get it wrong, or more likely hide it, because that is what those who oppose them expect. But more is expected of news media, in terms of accuracy and proof, because if they get it wrong government will be extreme in its condemnation, and the public will not be sympathetic.

If journalists are not presumed to tell the truth, if their stories are not assumed to be accurate, and corrected when they are not, then their role as democracy's watchdog ends. Journalists will be misled and will make mistakes on occasion. Usually this does not happen, and they help extract the truth.

The single source debate goes on, given more weight by the Newsweek affair. Of course it is desirable that, wherever possible, sources should be corroborated, and that they should be named. Good journalists will do that. Good editors will insist on it. But the crunch comes when the allegations deserve to be aired, when the source is judged trustworthy and when the second source is not there. This is the ultimate responsibility of editors - judgement of source accuracy and implications of story - and in my experience it is never taken remotely lightly. The stakes are too high.

Increasingly, governments will challenge rather than ignore. Gilligan and the Hutton report removed a chairman, a director-general and an investigative reporter from the BBC. Few of us now believe that the issues were as clear-cut as the outcome. Piers Morgan went after the "torture" pictures and allegations in the Mirror were found to be a hoax. And now Newsweek has had its retraction extracted under government attack.

News stories have consequences. David Kelly is dead. So are the 17 or so Afghans caught up in anti-US riots. News media did not kill them. But in this context the requirement for accuracy and proof on the part of journalists is more important than ever. In a business where piecing together the truth is often inevitably incremental, it is not always easy to deliver completely at every step.

It's easier for politicians. The US senators so eager to pour contempt on Newsweek were entirely happy to make the most serious allegations against George Galloway that were no more "proven" than events at Guantanamo. It is not a level playing field. But neither should it be.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

Comments