Newsweek' Controversy: 'Newsweek' article fallout could echo through media

As 'Newsweek' scrambles to fix the damage caused by its Koran story, many wonder how the incident will impact the magazine - and the media

As 'Newsweek' scrambles to fix the damage caused by its Koran story, many wonder how the incident will impact the magazine - and the media

Newsweek, after some initial foot dragging, seems to have gotten its act together.

First, it retracted the article that alleged distasteful mishandling of the Koran by US interrogators. And now it has penned a letter to its readers, signed by editor-in-chief Richard Smith, revising its policy on anonymous sources - one of whom provided the initial contested account.

The missive states that only Newsweek's editor or managing editor can now approve the use of an anonymous source in a story. It also said the news magazine would make an effort to find a second, independent source or corroborating evidence before running a story attributed to an anonymous source. Crisis counselors generally applauded the move.

But whether those steps will heal the damage done to Newsweek's reputation remains to be seen.

After all, the incident has added fire to several debates much broader than the reputation of a single magazine. Are anonymous tipsters responsible, legitimate resources for news articles? Did the White House overstep its bounds by pressuring Newsweek to defend America after the item spurred rioting and deaths in the Middle East? These are all issues that will continue to swirl around the name Newsweek for the near future.

As for the magazine, Brenda Wrigley, an associate professor of PR at Syracuse University, says the publication "comes out of this OK. It's a good, solid news organization."

Newsweek has taken the first two steps necessary to manage a crisis, she says. It has been transparent about how the story came to be, and it has moved to make reforms to prevent a similar problem in the future. But it still must take the third step, Wrigley believes: keeping the public informed on how its reforms are working.

Other critics contend the magazine needs to fire or discipline someone involved in the case to show it's serious about rooting out problems.

"The bottom line is they may all be sorry at Newsweek, but they all still have their jobs," says Cliff Kincaid, editor of the Accuracy in Media report. A firing or some sort of disciplinary action would go far to help build credibility in the Islamic world that reacted so violently to the story, Kincaid adds.

Crisis expert Jim Lukaszewski of the Lukaszewski Group agrees that "some senior person's head has to roll on this deal, or it's going to go on for some time. They have an enormous penance to undertake there." He advises Newsweek to open itself up to outside examination of its policies. "This is exactly what they would require and scream and holler for if they weren't journalists," he says. "The retraction was extremely late. They wouldn't tolerate this from a GM or a Wal-Mart."

The anonymity issue

The issue of anonymous sourcing is shaping up as the major legacy of the Newsweek story. Indeed, The New York Times carried a report on May 23 that detailed how outlets, such as itself and USA Today, are trying to rely less on them.

While Newsweek's announcement that it is tightening policies on anonymous quotes is a good first step, "it begs the question of what other news organizations are going to do," says Craig Shirley, president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs.

In the internet news age, where nearly anyone with a blog or website can break a big story, the pressure on mainstream media to be first has led to lower standards for sourcing a story, contends Bill Keegan, EVP and director of the crisis and issues practice at Edelman.

Newsweek addressed this issue in its letter to readers: "While there will always be the impulse to get an exclusive story into the magazine quickly, we will continue to value accuracy above all else. We are committed to holding stories for as long as necessary in order to be confident of the facts."

Ken Weine, communications director for Newsweek, did not return calls seeking comment.

While the mainstream media compete with blogs and other online outlets to be first, they're being held to a different standard of accuracy by the public than these new competitors.

People gathering information from blogs won't necessarily believe something only one blog reports, looking for a confluence of opinions on a topic first, explains Jeffrey Feldman, manager of consulting and strategic services with Cymfony, a Watertown, MA-based media measurement firm. Mainstream outlets are being held to a higher requirement of reporting facts and must be more careful when using anonymous sources, he says.

Another option might be for mainstream media to approach news reports differently, letting readers know they might not be sure about the truth of something reported, Feldman adds.

The blogosphere was abuzz with comments on Newsweek's handling of the matter. More than 2,000 postings occurred by May 17, and the number doubled in the five days after that.

Opinions fell into four groups, says Feldman. Conservative bloggers see Newsweek as part of the media elite that simply dislikes the Bush camp. Liberal bloggers argue that whether Newsweek was right or wrong doesn't matter - the administration's half-truths on Iraq created an atmosphere where the story seemed plausible.

A small group sees the incident as merely an attempt to sell more magazines. Lastly, bloggers who follow the media see it as a case in which Newsweek caved in to White House pressure by retracting the story.

Mainstream media outlets like Newsweek need to stop worrying about competing with online outlets for scoops and get back to being a source of facts, says Keegan. "Should they really feel pressured by a guy like Matt Drudge or others in the blogosphere? No."

Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, says, "I don't know what it will take for us to deal with the issue of anonymous sources. I think we're dealing with it slowly in the entire journalism industry."

Todd Van Hoosear, a partner with Malden, MA-based Topaz Partners, says the Newsweek incident is a reminder that PR pros should make sure clients know what a reporter means by "off the record," "not for attribution," and "background," phrasing that can be misinterpreted in the heat of an interview.

White House's reaction

White House press secretary Scott McClellan's call for Newsweek to actively help improve America's image - or repair the damage done to it by the magazine, as the administration contends - is dismissed by some as political maneuvering.

"That's spin control out of the White House. It's part of the ongoing attack on the media," says Richard Chernela, crisis specialist and VP with Euro RSCG Magnet.

Wrigley calls McClellan's comment the "attack-dog response. Don't make the media do public policy work. [The White House is] grasping at straws. It's a blame-shifting communications strategy."

Patrick Berzinski, communications director with the Stevens Institute of Technology, agrees. "It's now par for the course that the White House will go after the press if it sees an opportunity." The charged partisan atmosphere in DC makes it even more vital for major news outlets to be sure they get their facts straight. "The press must be careful not to hand the administration a stick to beat it with," he says.

Not everyone is so quick to dismiss the McClellan comment, however. "You've got to develop allies in a crisis," says Keegan.

He thinks Newsweek should consider working with the government to tackle the issue of credibility in the Islamic world. Keegan says of the magazine: "They've got some serious credibility issues overseas now."

Accuracy in Media's Kincaid believes that the White House did not overstep its bounds in asking Newsweek to do something to help America's image.

"The White House had every right to do that," he says, adding that Newsweek's apology and policy changes in regard to anonymous sources aren't enough to impress the Islamic world.

Shirley sees the White House move as a way to gain political points with supporters. "When you've got the advantage, press the advantage," he says.

  • Erica Iacono contributed to this story.

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