Newsweek Curbs Unnamed Sources
Koran Story Led to Rule Change

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 23, 2005

Newsweek Chairman Richard M. Smith, responding to a week of criticism over a retracted story about the desecration of the Koran, said yesterday that the magazine is restricting its use of anonymous sources.

"The cryptic phrase 'sources said' will never again be the sole attribution for a story in Newsweek," Smith wrote in a letter to readers.

The retracted item, which sparked violent protests in Afghanistan and elsewhere that killed 16 people, relied on one unnamed government official in saying that military investigators had confirmed that U.S. guards at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility had flushed a copy of the Koran down the toilet. The item was attributed to "sources," although there was only a single source, who Newsweek said later backed off his account.

Smith, in announcing the new rules, said that "to the extent that our story played a role in contributing to . . . violence, we are deeply sorry." Administration officials have sharply criticized Newsweek for irresponsibility, and both the National Review and the New York Post have run cover images of toilets in denigrating the credibility of Newsweek and the mainstream media. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, appearing on CNN, yesterday dismissed the item from the magazine's "Periscope" section as appearing in a "gossip column."

At Newsweek, owned by The Washington Post Co., the burden will now be on reporters to show why anonymity is necessary, Smith wrote. Only the editor, managing editor and other editors they appoint will have the authority to approve the use of unnamed sources, he said. Smith said the magazine will try harder to help readers understand the nature of the source's access to information and motives for remaining anonymous. If that "puts us at a competitive disadvantage," he said, "so be it."

The restrictions, similar to those adopted at the New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today -- the Gannett paper has slashed its use of unnamed sources by 75 percent -- are part of what Smith calls an effort aimed at readers "to earn their renewed confidence."

Newsweek has said it published the item after two Pentagon officials declined an opportunity to deny it. In the future, Smith wrote, "tacit affirmation, by anyone, no matter how highly placed or apparently knowledgeable, will not qualify as a secondary source."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company