A Matter of Mutual Misunderstanding

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, October 19, 2008

One of the most demanding aspects of this job is explaining readers to journalists and journalists to readers.

With e-mail and online comments, readers have become far more engaged than ever before; the instant feedback can be invigorating, but many journalists have been blindsided by the viciousness of some of it -- and often just won't read it. Readers often don't understand the ethos and independence of journalism and its deeply held, almost religious, beliefs.

Journalists love a good story, and in the hell-for-leather process of getting it they can forget what readers need to know or how the story or photo and its display or headline may irritate. Readers can be so wrapped up in a cause, a party or a candidate that they forget there are other viewpoints to consider. And there can be bias and self-righteousness on both sides.

But then along comes a financial crisis, and where besides major newspapers and their Web sites can readers get authoritative coverage of what is engulfing us? Readers wrote to me with suggestions for making the reporting more understandable; The Post moved quickly with a glossary of financial terms and sought feedback online in the new Economy Watch, a daily package of crisis coverage. That's the way it ought to be.

Many stories valued by journalists -- the ones that are difficult, sometimes nerve-racking or dangerous to get -- are not always valued by readers. Each reader comes with special needs and interests. Washington Capitals fans want some of the column inches that go to covering the Redskins; residents want more local political coverage; some parents regret that KidsPost has been cut to four days a week. And readers, in this political season, don't want any stories reflecting negatively on their candidate.

When I came to this job in October 2005, I heard more from Democrats who thought The Post was in George W. Bush's back pocket. The Post was "Bush's stenographer." Now I hear mainly from Republicans who think The Post is trying to elect Barack Obama president.

Journalists question the powerful, often side with the underdog and love the new more than the old. The new politician is more interesting. Bill Clinton over George H.W. Bush. George W. Bush over Al Gore. That shows in Post political coverage this year. Barack Obama is the new thing. So is Sarah Palin. They get more ink.

Reporters love access, but access doesn't guarantee positive coverage. Before John McCain became inaccessible to the media, reporters loved to bat it around with him. He once called the news media "my base." Obama has rarely been accessible and never hung out with journalists. Fewer politicians now kick back with a drink and talk candidly to reporters as McCain once did. More's the pity. That's often when reporters found out what was really going on.

In the old days, journalists gathered the facts and got them in the next day's paper, and readers didn't weigh in with the vehemence they express now, unless there was a political fight or a labor-management dispute. Reporters owned their beats, and newspapers usually were the only serious game in town.

Now, it's a free-for-all. Journalists must adapt at warp speed to the Internet. But the Web holds out the promise of new relationships between journalists and readers.

No matter who wins a national or local election, no public official of any party is going to be able to hold enthralled the news media, let alone the myriad bloggers. Another side with different opinions will seek power. Conflict is the life's blood of journalism.

Once there's a new president -- or governor or city council chairman -- one of the dominant rules of journalism kicks in: Question authority. Journalists love a good fight or a scandal. Republican readers today forget the aggressive coverage The Post gave to Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky affair.

One of the great things about journalism in this country -- yesterday and today -- is that it's hard to suppress a story that needs to be done. Captains of industry, the president of the United States and major advertisers can't keep something out of the paper -- at least not for long. That resistance to pressure is what makes our free press free.

In a perfect world, readers would appreciate the work that journalists do, and journalists would think of readers first: How can we bring readers into the journalistic process? How can we rethink how we cover news? How best can we communicate the facts and make all opinions known? How can we be sure that this story is free of bias and taint? How can display and timing enhance or harm the credibility of the story? Can we be less defensive about criticism?

If I'm a reader, can I approach this story with an open mind about what I might learn and not think The Post is in anyone's back pocket? If there's a mistake, can I believe it's human error and not a conspiracy? If I know facts that aren't in the story, can I send them to a reporter or editor? Can I write a note of praise as well as civil notes of criticism?

In that world, journalists would bring readers into their reporting, and readers would appreciate that an unfettered press is an essential part of democracy.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company