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Late-Breaking News

By Michael Getler
Sunday, December 19, 2004; Page B06

Last Monday, a headline on Page A17 of The Post said, "U.S. Troops, Insurgents Battle Across Iraq." Just below that headline, in smaller type, was a line that read: "Eight Marines Killed, Seven Soldiers Injured in Fighting." Not surprisingly, some readers called or e-mailed to ask why that story wasn't on the front page. "Eight dead Marines on A17," one reader wrote. "So if there are four dead will that be on A34? Will it take 32 dead to at least make the front page?" Some other readers compared it with a feature story on Page One that morning about how the sandwich trade was booming in local, chain-operated eating places.

The Post did about as well as most of the other half-dozen or so major papers I look at regularly. The news of the heavy Marine losses broke late Sunday night, with news reports arriving, according to the Foreign news desk here, about 11:30 p.m. There were few details about the fighting other than the numbers of dead and wounded.

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But one paper -- the Baltimore Sun -- had a big headline, "Eight Marines Killed in Iraq," at the top of its front page Monday, with the news story, compiled from wire service accounts, underneath it. The front page, in my view, is where that story belonged. The Sun, as it turned out, had an edge on this. Editors say they already had a story about fighting in Iraq in the lead position, so when the higher casualty count came in, they were prepared to beef up the story.

By the yardsticks of this war, eight dead Marines and at least seven wounded soldiers in one day is a lot, and it would seem to be one of the most important news events of the preceding 24 hours, even though not much was known beyond the toll.

I write, of course, subjectively and with the benefit of hindsight. Those at the time who did not move the story to the front could have made a different judgment for other reasons.

Nevertheless, the episode struck me as one of those moments that test news organizations when they least expect it, such as late on a Sunday night when the pulse of a newsroom is a little slower, when the front page is set and most of the top editors are not in the office. Suddenly, an earlier story about a few casualties is now a bigger one. You need to decide whether to act on that, whether to tear up a front page, perhaps moving a feature story off the front that doesn't really fit inside. Or, you beef up the story on A17, leave it there and figure the readers will see it.

It's easy for me to say, but I vote for changing the front page.

Another story with interesting journalistic overtones did appear on the front page last Tuesday. It was by freelance writer Alicia Mundy. Most of the story was about a February 2002 article in the Boston Herald and a resulting libel suit, scheduled for trial next month, filed by a Superior Court judge in Massachusetts against the Herald and four of its writers. But it was also about a potentially dangerous pothole for print journalists who, after writing a story for a newspaper, go on television to be questioned or to talk about their story and go beyond what they have said in print or what they may later have to say under oath.

In the Herald case, a reporter's answers to Fox News TV host Bill O'Reilly, in contrast to his later answers under oath in the libel case, have been seized upon by the judge's attorneys to try to prove "reckless disregard for the truth" on the part of the newspaper.

The Herald case seems to be an extreme example. Print reporters have been appearing on television for many years but in the past mostly on news panel shows of the major networks. In recent years, the cable channels have vastly expanded such opportunities, as has the explosion of online "chats" by journalists in their own organizations as part of the spreading phenomenon of newspaper companies becoming multimedia corporations.

Newspapers have editors who go over stories before they are printed. Live TV and online chats don't have such gatekeepers. News organizations such as The Post have thick rule books about how stories should be handled and how reporters should handle themselves when it comes to the newspaper. And some editors also routinely caution reporters about their TV and online appearances.

But clear, written rules about how to present oneself in this new world of online chats and cable TV do not yet exist here. Post reporters, from my experience, are both knowledgeable and forthcoming, in a useful way, in the new media. But there is no doubt that on occasion, some language or descriptions, or the hint of opinion, are used that a print editor would have taken out. Whenever that happens, readers catch it.

An item in my Dec. 5 column about a study by the Defense Science Board said that the board's report had not been made public until the New York Times wrote about it on Nov. 24. The Times had said that the report had not been released to the public. Last week, the Times corrected that, noting that the board had posted the report earlier on its own Web site.

Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at ombudsman@washpost.com.

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