When the story gets in the way of the truth

When the story gets in the way of the truth

: What a terrible lesson in journalism: about the danger of unnamed sources, about the risk of rushing a story, about the cynicism of gotcha journalism, about the damage a wrong story can do.

Newsweek quotes an unnamed source alleging that the Koran was desecrated at Guantanamo Bay and anti-American riots break out in Afghanistan, causing at least 15 deaths and other damage not so easy to add up.

Now Newsweek says, oops, nevermind, oh so sorry, it appears we could be wrong: Their source now isn’t so sure he saw that report in documents that Newsweek apparently did not confirm. Joe Gandelman has a good summary; Michelle Malkin has many links.

This mistake cost people their lives, put the lives of our soldiers in the Mideast at risk, damaged the American position in the effort to defend itself and spread democracy, and damaged the already tattered reputation of journalism.

And to what end?

If the report had come from a source who had the balls to stand by what he said, if the alleged event had been witnessed, if it had been confirmed by independent authorities, I’m not sure what the imperative to report would have been: Why did we need to urgently know this? What public good is served? If it were absolutely true, that might be one matter but…

Given that none of those if’s was true — the informant did not have the balls, the event was not witnessed by a source, the event was not confirmed independently — and given the knowledge that such a report could only be incendiary, then why report it except to play one of two games:

Show-off — in which the journalist delights in knowing something no one else knows and wants to tell the world before everyone else does, even if it’s not assuredly true.

Gotcha — in which the reporter think he has exposed something somebody wanted to hide.

An incident such as this should force us to ask what the end result of journalism should be. Is it to expose anything we can expose? Is it to beat the other guy to tell you something you didn’t know?

Or is it to tell the truth?

And if you don’t know it to be true, is it reporting? If you rely on unnamed sources and unconfirmed reports, is it journalism?

To sum up journalism as “tell the truth” sounds so damned simplistic. But that is what journalism is about, isn’t it? Or shouldn’t it be?

I’m not saying that Newsweek lied. But they didn’t know the truth before they said what they said. They put the gotcha scoop ahead of the truth and ahead of nothing less than the good of mankind.

: See also these posts about journalism and truth: here, here, and here.

And Dan Okrent on anonymous sources. I agree with him that sometimes, anonymous sources are necessary to report that which you know to be true.

: Here’s a GoogleNews search for “sources.”

: UPDATE: In The Times, Kit Seelye says that Newsweek is not retracting:

But Mr. Whitaker said in an interview later: “We’re not retracting anything. We don’t know for certain what we got wrong.”

And neither do you know for certain what, if anything, you got right. That’s the problem.

: LATER: Alan in the comments raises an important consideration. He says that the deaths are not themselves Newsweek’s fault but the fault of — my words — fanatics who would kill in the name of religion.