The storm that erupted in the wake of Newsweek’s publication of a report that claims that the Quran had been desecrated at Guantanamo will not cool off anytime soon, despite the magazine retracting its story and apologizing for the withdrawn article.
These latest retraction by Newsweek will not, of themselves, calm the situation, although the magazine has publicly admitted that the source it based the article on was no longer sure of the allegations. In fact, the article has caused great harm and loss of life, with dozens killed in Afghanistan after demonstrations erupted in the wake of the story’s publication. The entire Islamic world was furious at the report, especially given that memories of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq are still fresh in people’s minds.
This latest case to involve the American military base in Guantanamo illustrates the problem that newspaper and other media face when using anonymous and unverifiable sources. It comes at a time when the media in the United States is under enormous pressure after its credibility has been rocked by scandals involving false stories from leading organisations such as The New York Times, USA Today, and CBS. Recent opinions polls show that only 17% of Americans believe their media, down from 28% before the scandal.
The magazine has tried to contain the fallout from the alleged insults to the Quran, by apologizing to its readers and those affected by the violence, and vowing to be more transparent in its reporting. However, this apology has been insufficient, and the reputation of all the US media is in tatters.
The case of Newsweek presents every journalist, reporter or editor with a dilemma regarding the reliance on an unidentifiable and thus unaccountable source to publish information. A thin line exists between gathering and disseminating valuable information on the one had, and being manipulated by sources who have their own agendas on the other. Journalists ought to ask themselves why a given source agrees to revealing information but withholds its identity. Obviously, in the case of Newsweek, the magazine is now faced with a huge burden of responsibility for all those who were killed during demonstrations in Afghanistan.
This latest crisis in American journalism comes at a time when Newsweek and other media organisations are reconsidering the rules regarding information obtained from sources, and trying to assemble them into a set of written guidelines. On a related note, American journalists are no longer hiding their discontent regarding the secrecy imposed by the Bush administration on matters relating to its war on terror, a silence that makes it difficult to collect and attribute information.
However, let us not forget that those lost their lives in the demonstrations in Afghanistan were not killed because of the article in Newsweek, which they might have not read or even heard of. They were the victims of the growing animosity towards the policies of the current American government. In fact, it was Newsweek magazine who had previously revealed the fate of several prisoners who suffocated in containers during their transfer by troops from the Northern Alliance, after Afghanistan was occupied by US forces. The latest report on the vandalism of the Quran comes at a time of inflamed tensions. It quickly reached individuals propagated the information and marketed it, in order to ensure that the situation in the Muslim world remains at boiling point.