Ombudsman

A Good Story and a Goodbye (Part 1)

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By Michael Getler
Sunday, October 2, 2005

There is a journalistic device that is informative, accurate and protective, but that too often doesn't get used. It is a simple sentence that says: "This account could not be independently verified."

It comes to mind in the aftermath of a lengthy and powerful investigative article last Monday in the New Orleans Times-Picayune that said: "As the fog of warlike conditions in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath has cleared, the vast majority of reported atrocities committed by evacuees have turned out to be false, or at least unsupported by any evidence, according to key military, law enforcement, medical and civilian officials in position to know."

The next day, the Los Angeles Times weighed in with an article headlined, "Katrina Takes a Toll on Truth, News Accuracy." On Thursday, the front page of the New York Times had this headline: "Fear Exceeded Crime's Reality in New Orleans." The Washington Times's front-page headline said, "Media, blushing, takes another look at Katrina." As of Friday, The Post had not looked back at this. I hope it does, as do some Post readers who see these other papers. I'm told a story is in the works.

Lots of bad stuff happened in New Orleans, and many news organizations, especially the Times-Picayune but also including The Post and many others, provided excellent reporting under extremely difficult conditions. Much in these accounts, of necessity, was attributed to people who were either witnesses or said they were witnesses. Some of the most powerful descriptions came from top officials. In nationally televised interviews with Oprah Winfrey, the city's police chief reported rapes of babies, and the mayor talked of people "in that frickin' Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people."

The Post has been quite careful in its reporting. An exceptional 4,000-word account of what went on at the convention center, by reporters Wil Haygood and Ann Scott Tyson in the Sept. 15 paper, for example, made clear that "No one has been able to say how many people died inside . . . nor has there been any attempt to document the number of assaults, robberies and rapes that eyewitnesses said occurred."

Nevertheless, as the Times-Picayune wrote last week, "The piles of bodies never materialized, and soldiers, police officers and rescue personnel on the front lines say that although anarchy reigned at times and people suffered unimaginable indignities, most of the worst crimes reported at the time didn't happen." If that is indeed the case, that's a story also worth putting in front of Post readers.

There were other matters that readers wrote or called about last week. Two or three, for example, thought that a news story on the front of the Metro section on Wednesday -- reporting that a D.C. Superior Court judge had invalidated a third of the District's 2002 residential property tax assessments, affecting 35,000 properties -- deserved to be on Page A1, perhaps instead of another feature about American University's embattled president, Benjamin Ladner, who had been the subject of eight previous stories in September. That seemed reasonable to me.

ยท

When I sat down to write this column, I intended it to be part one of a farewell. But I find it difficult to pull away from reader observations about the news. So I'm left with a bit of space this week, and perhaps a final column next week, to make some personal observations.

This is about where I came in five years ago. I've been in this job longer than I, or The Post, anticipated when I took it in November 2000. My successor, Deborah Howell, the former Washington bureau chief and editor of Newhouse News Service, starts Oct. 10.

Today I'd like to do two things: thank The Post's readers for helping me write some 230 Sunday columns and thank The Post for continuing the tradition of an independent ombudsman for the past 35 years.

Generally, these columns focus on one or perhaps half a dozen issues that readers raise and sometimes that I raise. But aside from those published columns, there have also been 230 weekly internal memos to The Post's staff, each of which contains anywhere from 10 to 30 reader observations about other items. The idea is to make sure that, one way or the other, all the substantive issues that come to me from the paper's readers, and that deal with the journalistic mission of the newspaper and how well or poorly that mission is carried out, get put in front of the paper's 700-member news staff.

So, over five years that means that 5,000 or more of your comments, criticisms and compliments got put in front of the people who supply your news. There have probably been many hundreds of other exchanges in which editors or reporters, at my request, have responded directly to readers. The Post, to its great credit, does not interfere at all in anything the ombudsman has to say or report.

Ombudsmen have no authority. They can't force the paper to do anything. What we can do, as The Post's first ombudsman, the late Richard Harwood, once wrote, is make editors and reporters think about what they do.

It is very hard to measure whether any of this has any real impact. The Post is a fine newspaper. It is also an important newspaper. To remain strong, it needs to be challenged -- not by ideologues or forces seeking to destroy those who look under the wrong rocks -- but by readers who demand and value hard-nosed reporting, fair and insightful analysis, and high journalistic standards that provide confidence in what is being reported.

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


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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