Newsweek#039;s bad apple must not spoil orchard

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Unfortunately, one bad apple often spoils the whole bunch. But hopefully the Newsweek tree can be trimmed now so we can preserve the entire orchard.

After much public outcry, Newsweek plans to limit the magazine's use of anonymous sources after the recent scandal that ignited deadly protests in Afghanistan.

The May 9 edition quoted "a knowledgeable U.S. government source,'' claiming that U.S. investigators had found evidence that interrogators placed copies of the Koran, the Muslim holy book, in washrooms and had flushed one down the toilet in an effort to get inmates to talk.

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After the article was published, an uproar began that left dozens of people dead in Afghanistan.

The source later backed off the allegation and reporters have been unable to confirm this claim through other means. The incident prompted Newsweek to change its policy on unnamed sources and work harder to verify with a second source.

All media should exhaust all efforts in verifying sources - especially unnamed ones.

The backlash against Newsweek might prompt some people to call for media to cease the use of unnamed sources. Doing so would be a disservice to the greater good.

Newspapers and magazines must be extremely judicious in how they use these "tipsters" but we should not forget that many of our nation's biggest stories started as news stories with unnamed sources.

Would we have ever known about President Richard Nixon's cover-up of his party's crooked election tactics if it weren't for Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward? These two men paved the way for investigative reporting and broke the story of the decade.

Since then, many stories of great merit have resulted, at least initially, from unnamed sources. Examples include the Abu Ghraib prison abuse, the President Bill Clinton sex scandal, Enron's corruption and many others.

Anonymous sources must only be used as a last resort, and even then with great caution. But the need will always exist because often the biggest stories are the most dangerous.

The thing that hurt Newsweek is simply that the source was wrong.

Lets not get rid of the whole apple tree. We must simply keep the worms out of the basket.