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Ombudsman

Old Gas and the Real America

By Michael Getler
Sunday, October 3, 2004; Page B06

The front page of The Post, of course, is its prime real estate; the journalistic equivalent of location, location, location. It is where the most important, most interesting and, sometimes, most surprising stories appear.

So one thing you don't want to do on Page One is make a mistake, especially a big one in a headline such as the one last Saturday that stretched across most of the front page and read, "Old and Gas Hold the Reins in the Wild West." This was over a story by reporters Joby Warrick and Juliet Eilperin about President Bush's environmental record that referred to "growing throngs of oil and gas men looking for places to drill" in a Colorado sanctuary for wild horses. Readers had fun with this, some suggesting that they thought the story was about seniors out West with gastrointestinal disorders. Others simply wanted to know how such a mistake could go through all the editors and all the editions of The Post without anyone catching it. I have tried to find out but thus far have not received an explanation.

Michael Getler is The Post's ombudsman. He can be reached at (202) 334-7582 or by e-mail at ombudsman@washpost.com, or c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., 20071.

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The front page always attracts challenges from readers who think they know better than the editors. Last week was no exception.

Last Sunday, for example, much of the top of the front page -- plus two full pages inside -- was devoted to a lengthy profile by staff writer Anne Hull about a 17-year-old Oklahoman, Michael Shackelford, growing up "Young and Gay in Real America." That was the title of the series, which continued at the same length on Monday. Hull is a gifted reporter and writer and this is an extraordinarily intimate portrayal of a young person's battle with who he is and where he is. Anne Hull received many compliments. I got the complaints.

Several readers objected to the use of "Real America" in the headline, complaining that the phrase is "a meaningless concept," "insulting" and "a gross oversimplification" to imply that small-town Oklahoma is somehow more "real" than Arlington or Washington. The intent, Hull explained in an online chat, was only "to suggest the large swath of land and opinions beyond the metropolitan areas," where homosexuality is not the issue that it is in the Bible Belt. Nevertheless, I also thought this headline was a mistake, a needless red flag that immediately distracted some readers from the story.

Others objected to the prominent display at the top of the Sunday front page, some because of the subject and some because they felt it was poor judgment at a time of anxiety over war and politics. To some, the prominence confirmed their sense that the paper has an "agenda" on this subject. Newspapers like to showcase their best work, and this, by any measure, was a superbly told story on an important social issue. It belonged on the front page. Yet maybe not at the top, where the placement and prominence invariably send messages that editors may or may not intend or that readers may or may not get or want.

Last Tuesday, the lead story -- in the top right-hand corner -- was headlined, "Poll Shows Bush With Solid Lead." It was over a story by reporters Dan Balz and Vanessa Williams, based on the latest results of a new Washington Post-ABC News poll showing, among other things, that President Bush held a 51 percent to 45 percent lead over Sen. John F. Kerry among likely voters. This seemed to be a solid story about a solid lead. But several readers raised good questions about it. For example, the 51 and 45 percent figures do not appear until the 13th paragraph of the story, on Page A8. The next sentence points out that the previous Post-ABC poll published on Sept. 10 showed Bush with a 52 to 43 percent margin. So, readers asked, shouldn't the headline or the top of the story have also said that Bush's lead, while still significant, had slipped from nine points to six points?

A couple of others asked a more basic question: Should a story about an opinion poll be the lead story in a newspaper? The Post has an excellent polling unit, led by Richard Morin. But a poll is just that, a random survey of, in this case, 1,204 randomly selected adults, 810 of whom said they were likely voters. There is a margin of error of plus or minus three percent, which means the results could conceivably be 48-48 or 54-42.

Other newspapers -- USA Today and the New York Times, for example -- also sometimes lead with results of their own polls. But do these samplings of opinion merit the position reserved for the most important news story of the day? Do they qualify as news based on solid information? They are, undeniably, of interest. But shouldn't they be someplace else on Page One? I would vote "yes."

Finally, on Wednesday, the lead story had a skimpy, narrow headline that might have seemed a bit obscure to many readers: "Baseball, Angelos Close to Deal." It was over a good but cautiously written story by reporter Thomas Heath that said District officials were "prepared for what they hoped would be a formal announcement today that baseball would return to the nation's capital after a 33-year absence." Now that's a big deal, and the Washington Times hit it out of the park. It had a banner headline streaming across the front page, "Baseball Returns to D.C.," over a story that stated flatly, and correctly, that "Washington will regain baseball today."

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


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