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A Strict Separation

By Leonard Downie Jr.
Wednesday, October 27, 2004; Page A25

With the 2004 election campaign now in its final week, the editorial page of The Washington Post, like those of most newspapers, is endorsing candidates for offices ranging from president of the United States to Congress to local city and county councils. Last Sunday, under the headline, "Kerry for President," The Post's editorial page endorsed the ticket of John Kerry and John Edwards.

This could lead some readers to conclude that candidates endorsed by The Post's editorial page might be given more favorable coverage in the news pages. This is not so.

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The Post's news coverage and the opinions stated on its editorial page are kept completely separate in what we irreverently refer to as "the separation between church and state." As our newsroom's written policy on standards and ethics states: "On this newspaper, the separation of news columns from the editorial and opposite-editorial pages is solemn and complete."

The opinions expressed on the editorial page, including the endorsements of candidates in elections, are determined in meetings of editorial writers, who are under the direction of Fred Hiatt, the editor of the editorial page. Neither I nor any of the editors and reporters who cover the news under my direction attend these meetings. We do not have anything to do with the opinions or endorsements of the editorial page. And neither Hiatt nor any of the editorial writers has involvement in the coverage of the news, including the election campaign.

This separation can be difficult for readers to understand. But we take it very seriously. We are determined to keep our coverage of the news -- especially an election campaign -- fair, unbiased and nonpartisan.

That might not always be clear to readers. Mistakes made in the rushed process of producing tens of thousands of words of news coverage on deadline every day can create unfairness that we try to correct over time. Language, especially in the few words of a headline on a story, and even photographs can convey unintended meanings. Aggressive reporting intended to hold public officials accountable to voters can be seen as crusading. Properly labeled news analysis can be confused with nearby news stories.

Of course, journalists are people, too, and cannot be expected to completely cleanse their professional minds of human emotions, especially when covering highly charged campaigns or controversial issues. Yet we ask Post reporters and editors to come as close as possible to doing just that.

As I have said and written before, I no longer exercise my right to vote. As the final decision-maker on news coverage in The Post, I refuse to decide, even privately, which candidate should be president or a member of the city council or what policies should be set for health care or taxes. I want my mind to remain open to all sides and possibilities as I supervise our coverage.

We do not discourage other editors and reporters from voting. But our policy on standards and ethics requires them to "avoid active involvement in any partisan causes -- politics, community affairs, social action, demonstrations -- that could compromise or seem to compromise our ability to report and edit fairly." We enforce this policy strictly.

The most common bias I find in our profession is the love of a good story, which the 2004 campaign has certainly been. The mission of our coverage of the campaign, more deeply felt by us than many readers may realize, has been to give voters as much information as possible about candidates, issues and the campaign so that they can decide the election's outcome.

The writer is executive editor of The Post.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company