May 16, 2005
The Woodward-and-Bernstein rule
When the media get it wrong, the results can be devastating. We need look no further than the tragic incidents that have occurred over the last week because reporters for Newsweek magazine got a story horribly wrong.
The facts: Newsweek reported in its May 9 issue that interrogators desecrated a copy of the Quran at Guantanamo Naval Base, the facility where detainees from the war against the Taliban and its al-Qaida allies in Afghanistan have been held. The report sparked outrage in Afghanistan and, in the ensuing demonstrations, at least 15 people died and scores were injured.
As one who works in the media, I am inclined to defend reporters and publications who come under fire for the stories they produce, much in the same way police come to the defense of their brethren when they are criticized for the way they handled an arrest or a car chase. But I am not so enamored by my chosen profession to believe it infallible.
It can never be infallible because those of us who work in the profession do not have all the answers. We are like historians, recording what happens on a daily basis, perhaps trying occasionally to put events into context. But journalism merely records history as it unfolds. What we know today might change with what we learn tomorrow.
I fear that, in the quest to uncover the facts, too many journalists and the news organizations for which they work have fallen victim to the must-have-it-first syndrome. Nothing else matters but to be first with the news to drive ratings, to drive circulation, to drive listenership. Rushing to be first does lead to errors, as Newsweek found this past week, as Dan Rather found out last year.
What journalists forget, I think, in the rush to be first is what I like to call the Woodward-and-Bernstein Rule: Take your time.
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, for the few who might not know, parlayed a burglary story into an investigation that uncovered misdeeds that led to the resignation of a president. They did not do this overnight; they did not do this by conjecture. It took them more than two years and painstaking work to uncover the story.
Journalism should not be a rush to judgement. Newsweek found that out the hard way last week and people died.