Resolutions for a Better Post

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Post is one of the best newspapers in the country -- so much better than the hollowed-out newspapers scattered across the landscape. As my term ends, I'd like to again point out ways that The Post can enhance its accessibility, credibility and appeal to readers in this time of economic stress.

The Post needs to value each loyal reader and pay more attention to those who are turned off or don't see themselves reflected in its pages. Can those readers be brought back? That's unclear, but it's worth the effort.

Transparency

· The Post should post its admirable ethics and standards guidelines on washingtonpost.com for all to see. You can find parts of them on the Web site of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. The Post challenges the ethics of others; the paper's policies, which are reasonable and elegantly written, should be public and easy to find. I've fought for this internally, but it hasn't happened.

· The Post needs to be better about attributing information and identifying sources. Readers deserve to know where information comes from. Too often the attribution is to anonymous sources, to "sources close to" this official or to "intelligence sources say," or there is no attribution at all.

The Post stylebook says that the paper "is committed to disclosing to its readers the sources of the information in its stories to the maximum possible extent. We want to make our reporting as transparent to the readers as possible so they may know how and where we got our information."

That's a good policy, and it needs to be followed much more closely. The same for this one: "We must strive to tell our readers as much as we can about why our unnamed sources deserve our confidence. Our obligation is to serve readers, not sources. This means avoiding attributions to 'sources' or 'informed sources.' Instead we should try to give the reader something more, such as 'sources familiar with the thinking of defense lawyers in the case'. . . . When sources refuse to be identified, it is often helpful to show readers that we tried to identify them, and explain why we could not."

· The Post should be easier to reach, with a full list of contact points on the Web site and frequent publication in the A section of phone numbers and e-mail addresses for desks and editors.

· The comments on washingtonpost.com should be monitored more closely. It harms The Post's reputation when racist and obscene comments stay up for hours or days.


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