Newsweek changes sourcing policy, strengthens publication guidelines

Newsweek editor-in-chief Richard M. Smith used 985 words of this week’s magazine to apologize again for publishing what turned out to be an unconfirmed report about mistreatment of the Quran — and then he went  a very big step further by explaining the changes being made as a result. His goal: "to share my thoughts with you and to affirm—and reaffirm—some important
principles that will guide our news gathering in the future."

One of the more frustrating things for me as I’ve watched the coverage of Newsweek has been the assumption by many that this was a cavalier, thoughtless, possibly rash move on the newsweekly’s part. It wasn’t. It was a bad decision based on a faulty foundation but it wasn’t like one reporter got a tip and it was rushed into print. One of Smith’s frustrations is that "we seem to have taken so many appropriate steps in reporting the Guantanamo story." They did push beyond a single source as they vetted the story; they thought they had confirmation. It’s happened before and, I hate to say, it will happen again whenever the reporter and sources aren’t completely clear with other other. (Anyone else remember the scene in "All The President’s Men" when they go with a story they think has been been confirmed but  wasn’t?")

The important aspect here is that Newsweek understands not only where the story went wrong, but what must be done to strengthen reporting and editing. As Smith writes, "if our traditional procedures did not prevent the mistake, then it is time to clarify and strengthen a number of our policies." The review process continues — also important —  but these are the immediate changes:

  • "… only the editor or the managing editor, or other top editors they
    specifically appoint, will have the authority to sign off on the use of
    an anonymous source."
  • "The cryptic phrase "sources said" will never again be the sole attribution for a story in NEWSWEEK."
  • "When information provided by a source wishing to remain anonymous is
    essential to a sensitive story—alleging misconduct or reflecting a
    highly contentious point of view, for example—we pledge a renewed
    effort to seek a second independent source or other corroborating
    evidence."
  • "Tacit affirmation, by anyone, no matter how highly placed or apparently knowledgeable, will not qualify as a secondary source."

Beyond sourcing, Smith underscored guiding principles:

  • holding stories for as long as necessary in order to be confident of the facts, regardless of competition.
  • ensure that sensitive stories receive appropriate refelection and discussion.
  • mistakes are inevitable but must confronted, corrected quickly, and treated as a learning experience. (Smith doesn’t say it but I will, once is a mistake, twice is a bad habit.)

Read the full letter.

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