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July 6, 2005

Good Reporting Gone Bad: The Observer on Iraq Torture

There are few stories more important -- and thus more crucial to get right -- than coverage of ongoing torture of prisoners held in the Iraq. It should not at this point be difficult to believe that abuse of captives is regular and widespread, be it at the hands of occupation forces or Iraq's reconstituted homegrown military.

So it is all the more distressing when what could constitute a top-notch exposé of the ongoing abuse turns out to be an example of poor journalism -- probably terrific investigation followed by weak reporting.

Yet that is precisely what The Observer gave us this week. So poorly did they report their findings of extraordinary abuse and extreme instances of torture in Iraq that we were unable to take it seriously enough to even write a news brief on the subject.

A couple of readers wrote in to point out the two Observer pieces -- one article about the UK and US's connection to funding that is diverted to Iraqi forces engaged in human rights violations, and another detailing those violations. We examined them closely, but we felt our hands were tied -- we can't violate our standards just because a story is believable. It needs to be more transparent than that.

For instance, as one TNS journalist pointed out, this is an example of particularly bad reporting:

A second torture center is said to be located in the basement of a clinic in the Shoula district, while the Wolf Brigade is accused of running its own interrogation centre - said to be one of the worst - at its Nissor Square headquarters. Other places where abusive interrogations have been alleged include al-Muthana airbase and the old National Security headquarters.

The allegations are listed so passively -- "is accused" or "is said to be" -- how can anyone assess their veracity? Who is making these allegations? Are they just rumors on the Baghdad street?

And how about a quote like this:

'We have been trying to break through to someone responsible to express our concerns,' said another international official.

They can't even name the "international official" who made a comment like that? What are they protecting the official from? Why not say? There are in fact so many anonymous sources in this article, it is difficult to string together a series of fully credible remarks.

We certainly appreciate how difficult it is to gather such an incredible story -- but would it not be worthwhile to make the story sound believable to people not predisposed to swallowing any bad news about Iraq? Why not throw true skeptics a bone and attribute your sources just a bit better?

Most people in the antiwar camp probably already consider themselves to be skeptics, but I think for many it applies only unilaterally. Skepticism of an adversary is easy -- it comes naturally. It doesn't really even qualify as skepticism; it dilutes the very concept; it is more like partisan wariness or just plain bias.

True skepticism is multilateral, and it pivots on one's willingness to critically examine and doubt even information that bolster's one's own case.

Our standard for this at TNS is pretty high. We expect that our audience consists of people who don't readily believe or accept what they read. That's why we always attribute our sources and whenever possible offer links, photographs, scanned documents -- whatever we have to demonstrate the legitimacy of our coverage.

In the end, both pieces are fascinating and compelling, which is why I discuss them here. But I think it is important that even people sympathetic to a story demand a higher standard of journalism. Only reporting that is hard for adversaries and elites to shrug off -- no to mention undecided skeptics not easily swayed by either side -- will in the end contribute to building authentic social change.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.