Patrick B. Pexton
Patrick B. Pexton
Ombudsman

Digital publishing gets transparent at The Washington Post

The Post took a very big step last week, perhaps a leap. It has posted publicly its new 5,000-word guidelines for digital publishing — the dos and don’ts for journalists working in this new age of online and social-media publishing.

The move is a leap toward transparency for this company and toward making journalists more accountable to the readers, their customers. And the guidelines come after months of discussion in the newsroom and input from company lawyers worried that if The Post’s journalistic standards were published, it could invite more lawsuits, frivolous and serious, from people trying to — oh my gosh — hold the publication to those standards.

Patrick B. Pexton

Pexton served as Post ombudsman from March 2011-March 2013.

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“Virtually nothing is private anymore,” said Peter Perl, the assistant managing editor who helped shepherd the guidelines to completion. “We’re asking people to trust us as a credible source of information, so why not publish what we stand for? Why shouldn’t people know it?” And, Perl notes, “We fully expect people will attack us on it every day.”

So openness and accountability won, and you the readers now have your chance to comment on Post digital practices, and ultimately, improve them. The preamble to the guidelines states that they are a “ ‘living document’ that we will continually modify and update based on feedback from our journalists, from our readers, and from our perceptions of our changing needs.”

The internal Post stylebook, which contains the mother lode on journalistic standards and practices for the company, is still buried. These guidelines are just a supplement to the stylebook. But making these digital guidelines public could eventually help expose that vein as well. (And check out the Omblog for links to the guidelines of some other news organizations.)

So what’s good in these new guidelines? A lot actually, but some of them will trouble traditionalists or print readers who have not fully plunged into the online world. When you’re inside the Post building and experiencing the intense competitive pressures of this digital age, you know, for better or worse, that digital is ultimately where The Post has to go.

The guidelines, for example, acknowledge that there are times when Post journalists will self-publish directly to the Web — yes, that’s right, no editors, fact checkers or copy editors. The Post doesn’t do a lot of this currently — the vast majority of Post stories are read by two editors, and most blog posts by one — but it does happen sometimes with breaking news that goes up on live blogs, and with tweets or Facebook postings, which are, in essence, live publishing.

In these cases — which have to be authorized by senior editors — the guidelines say that an editor must edit the post as soon as possible after publication online and, also important, that the posts be held to “the same standards for accuracy and fairness.” As the guidelines note, “our readers expect news and information to be delivered immediately and accurately.”

Journalists have big megaphones, but this document also acknowledges that in the newsroom, we forfeit some of our free-speech rights. Journalists have strong opinions, and informed ones to boot, but they can’t just tweet or post a slam against Republicans, Democrats, the president, the speaker of the House, Mormons, Muslims, Catholics, Jews or any other group without jeopardizing the reputation and credibility of The Post.

That’s why the guidelines state, “Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything — including photographs or video — that could be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism.”

This is tricky, because in the online world and in social media, reporters are encouraged to be more engaging and personal, more conversational — even opinionated — yet not biased. Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at New York University, doesn’t like this part of the guidelines. He says it’s an “invitation to self-censorship.”

Journalists are prime targets of America’s left-right culture wars, he notes, and someone will always perceive something as bias, even when it isn’t. The “could be perceived as” language hands “a veto to your most vigorous detractors.”

Still, Rosen joins Dan Gillmor, who teaches at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, in praising the guidelines overall: their transparency, their flexibility and The Post’s decision to make them public documents that will change with time and with input from readers.

Gillmor said he would have preferred a one-line document that said simply, “Be human, be honorable and don’t embarrass the company,” but he’ll take the guidelines as positive. “If newspapers are transparent and own up to stuff, and help readers understand the process of journalism, readers tend to be more forgiving.”

Amen to that.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@
washpost.com
.

 
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