Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The power of the printed word

Many of the allegations against Newsweek over Koran-gate follow a similar theme: that the magazine dropped its standards by relying on one unnamed source in order to score points against the White House / publish a scoop quickly. In other words, that the Koran detail was somehow right from the very begining particularly important to Newsweek.
I don't believe it. If you actually read the original item , you'll see that it's a very short piece about new details of abuse at Guantanamo, in which the Koran was mentioned exactly once as part of a laundry list of abuses. No one is quoted about the Koran incident. It's not the focus of the story. Most importantly, the whole story is buried in the Periscope section instead of being highlighted in a more prominent part of the mag, as it would have been had they regarded it as an important scoop.
What does this mean? That if Newsweek didn't check its sources properly on this detail, it wasn't because the paper wanted to publish at any price but because it simply didn't see this particular detail as particularly important -- and so standards dropped. To me, this is an example of journalists failing to understand that every single word they write has power. Just as academics get stuck in their ivory tower and don't understand the real world, I think journalists sometimes get stuck in their offices and forget that their words actually get read by real people. This is particularly true for short, minor stories which are written relatively quickly, which rarely get high levels of reader feedback, and which are churned out quickly and forgotten. And that's how you get casual and sloppy.
Strangely, the person who is rarely being mentioned at the moment is the mysterious source. What I'd like to know is whether he (/she????), too, simply did not realize the power of the printed word, and therefore wasn't particularly worried about accuracy, or whether, on the contrary, they were supremely aware of its power and deliberately lied for their own purposes. This part of the story is yet to come out, but I have a feeling it will.

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