BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Monday, 16 May 2005, 22:13 GMT 23:13 UK
Koran story brings US journalism crisis
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

There is an episode in the best novel ever written about foreign correspondents, Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, in which a reporter arrives in a city and files a story about a civil war, including a touching phrase about a body lying in the street like a broken doll.

Pakistani protester burns US flag in Koran demonstration
Allegations about desecration of the Koran ignited anti-US protests

Unfortunately he was in the wrong country. No matter. His story had such a destabilising effect that there was a run on the currency, riots broke out and there was a civil war anyway. "That's the power of the press for you," was the comment of an admiring colleague.

Fiction, even Waugh's satirical fiction, is not that far from fact.

This past week, at least 15 people died in riots in Afghanistan after the US magazine Newsweek reported that an FBI investigation had found that a copy of the Koran had been desecrated by camp guards at Guantanamo. They had allegedly flushed it down a lavatory as a way of putting pressure on a detainee to talk.

Newsweek first apologised for, and then retracted, its own story. It turns out that the anonymous source on whom it had relied was not necessarily in a position to know what, if anything, had really happened.

The magazine said: "We regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to the victims of the violence and to the US soldiers caught in its midst."

Lessons for learning

The incident illustrates two things.

The first is how an allegation can suddenly ignite protests. This is often unpredictable.

The second is how journalists in the United States and elsewhere are now having to re-examine their use of anonymous sources.

The Newsweek story is only the latest in a series of incidents which have led news organisations around the world to take a deep look at what rules they employ when dealing with anonymous sources

One factor in these protests was the intervention of Imran Khan, the Pakistani cricketer and opponent of President Musharraf, who produced the Newsweek story about at a news conference and said: "This is what the US is doing, desecrating the Koran."

That seemed to provide the immediate publicity an allegation like this sometimes needs to lift it from obscurity.

Yet this was not the first time such an allegation has been made.

On 26 July 2004, three British detainees released from Guantanamo Bay made a statement in which they said that "when Korans were provided, they were kicked and thrown about by the guards and on occasion thrown in the buckets used for the toilets. This kept happening. When it happened it was always said to be accident but it was a recurrent theme".

Re-examining the rules

The other issue is the reliability of sources and indeed of journalists themselves.

The Newsweek story is only the latest in a series of incidents which have led news organisations around the world to take a deep look at what rules they employ when dealing with anonymous sources.

Jayson Blair
Jayson Blair lied outright, but honest reporters face difficulties too
Anonymity is a vital journalistic tool. On a daily basis, officials of many governments talk to journalists on the basis that their names are not used.

More sensitively, someone who is revealing something they should not be will often ask for anonymity.

But a new phenomenon is at work which has forced journalists onto the back foot.

This is the growth of the "bloggers" on the internet, the web loggers who make it their business to delve into the practices of the mainstream media.

What is called a "blogswarm" over the Newsweek story is now developing, clamouring for Newsweek blood.

Not long ago, the CBS network came a cropper when allegations it made about President Bush's service in the National Guard were revealed by blog sites as being based on forged documents.

An executive of the CNN network, Eason Jordan, was forced to resign after remarks he made on an anonymous basis about US troops targeting journalists were attributed to him by a blogger.

The cases have been used by right-wing critics of the US media to press their claims that the media has a tendency to believe the worst about the Bush administration.

Keeping confidences

The New York Times is another news organisation which has been shaken recently. One of its reporters Jayson Blair, in the words of a Times inquiry, "committed journalistic fraud, including plagiarism and fabricated quotations".

The Times set up a committee to recommend ways of increasing readers' trust.

Among its measures were rules to limit the use of anonymous sources.

Alan Cowell, acting bureau chief in the New York Times London office, said: "The idea is to enable readers to have a better idea where we care coming from without betraying journalistic confidences."

The Washington Post has also revised its procedures, although it had no similar crisis to face.

"Over the past year we have tightened our attribution procedures," said Glenn Frankel, London correspondent.

"We are much more wary of anonymous sources. Editors now demand the names of sources and ask reporters to justify withholding names. The Post is aware of its vulnerability to anonymous sources especially in the Washington culture of background briefings."

BBC changes

The BBC has also reassessed its practices following the suicide of Dr David Kelly who was the anonymous source for a report by Andrew Gilligan that the British government had "sexed-up" its dossier on Iraqi armaments.

An inquiry by Lord Hutton criticised BBC procedures and these have been tightened up.

For example, editors have the right to ask a reporter who an anonymous source is. And viewers, listeners and readers have the right to know as much as possible about the source.

"If the source of an allegation has to remain anonymous, we must give the audience as much accurate information as is compatible with protecting the identity of the source," says the BBC Producers' Guidelines on journalistic practice.

It may be obvious but it has not always been done.

Hear details of Newsweek's retraction


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific