Correspondence To and From the Post’s Ombudsman
1. to Andrew Alexander, 22 February, 2009 via email
Congratulations and my sympathies on your new position.
In one of her last columns, Deborah Howell mentioned that she had long advocated making the Post’s code of ethics public (as is the New York Times’ code), but that she had failed to persuade Post management to do so. Perhaps you can have more success. As a sometime instructor in ethics (GMU Learning in Retirement Institute), I believe that keeping a code of ethics secret from affected publics and stakeholders (subscribers) is itself ethically questionable.
Having published the code, Post readers will have better tools for understanding why news stories are written the way they are, and interpreting the information they contain.
ASNE.org contains a version of the Post’s code of ethics — from ten years ago. The code has doubtless been updated several times since then, and in any case there should be a prominent link to the code from the Post’s home page.
2. from Andrew Alexander, 22 February, 2009 via email
Thanks for your e-mail. That’s a topic I intend to address at some point – either in a column or in the weekly internal note I do for the staff (it also goes to top management).
Washington Post Ombudsman
3. Ombudsman column, Washington Post, 5 April 2009, page A17 [abridged]
Got Rules? Then Don’t Be Afraid to Share Them
Newspapers demand accountability and transparency from the institutions they cover. But when it comes to The Post, one of the world’s best-known media institutions, the attitude seems to be: Good for thee, but not for me. The Post keeps its journalistic policies largely hidden, making it virtually impossible for readers to know the paper’s ethical and journalistic standards.
The public should be able to easily access them online. It’s not merely right but also smart to be transparent at a time when The Post is trying to hold on to readers.
A number of newspapers, including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, post their policies online. A dated version of The Post’s policies made its way years ago onto the Web site of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (http://www.asne.org) and can still be found with a little digging.
The issues are numerous. What are the ethical standards for editing visual images or audio content? What rules should govern the treatment of information obtained through Twitter or social networking sites such as Facebook? What are the policies for posting user-generated content, such as photos? What are the verification guidelines for linking to non-Post material from The Post’s Web site?
A separate question is whether The Post adheres to the policies in place. In my first two months as ombudsman, I’ve found a disturbing lack of attention to the standards and ethics rules.
New hires are taught about them as part of their orientation. But a surprising number of staffers told me it’s been years since they reviewed them. And several said they simply don’t adhere to some of the policies on confidential sources, including a requirement that “the source of anything that appears in the paper will be known to at least one editor.”
Why have policies if they aren’t followed?
One way to ensure adherence is to let the public see them. Readers are smart, and many are darn good at holding reporters accountable through what we in the business call “prosecutorial editing.”
It takes a leap of faith to make the policies public. But a good newspaper, confident that it can meet its own high standards, should welcome the scrutiny.