The Post's Journalistic Rules Are Kept Hidden From Readers

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By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, April 5, 2009

Newspapers demand accountability and transparency from the institutions they cover. But when it comes to The Post, one of the world's best-known media institutions, the attitude seems to be: Good for thee, but not for me.

The Post keeps its journalistic policies largely hidden, making it virtually impossible for readers to know the paper's ethical and journalistic standards.

The public should be able to easily access them online. It's not merely right but also smart to be transparent at a time when The Post is trying to hold on to readers.

"News organizations appropriately shine the light of scrutiny on other sectors of society," such as government agencies, says journalism scholar Robert M. Steele. "They should be willing to have the same light of scrutiny shined on themselves."

Press critics might sometimes use the policies to "bash" journalists, says Steele, who teaches at DePauw University in Indiana and the Poynter Institute on media studies in Florida. "But my experience tells me that many citizens will respect those news organizations that are willing to be held accountable in this way."

In years past, newspapers often feared that if they revealed their policies, plaintiffs' attorneys could use them to pummel reporters and editors at libel trials. But opposition faded as judges granted access to the policies as part of pretrial discovery proceedings.

Now, most newspaper lawyers -- including the top in-house counsel for The Post -- see no legal rationale for hiding the policies from readers. A number of newspapers, including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, post their policies online. A dated version of The Post's policies made its way years ago onto the Web site of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (http://www.asne.org) and can still be found with a little digging.

The Post's policies are laid out in a section of its stylebook titled "Standards and Ethics." They deal with everything from conflicts of interest to fairness to confidential sources. They're sensible and inspiring.

As good as they are, however, the policies urgently need updating to cover online journalism. That should be a priority as The Post integrates its print and online operations this year.

Currently, the online staff follows the newspaper's policies. Raju Narisetti, The Post managing editor who oversees washingtonpost.com, says the "Standards and Ethics" segment of the stylebook is a "living document" that should be updated when online ethical issues arise.

What's needed, I think, is a proactive -- not reactive -- look at the standards that should govern online journalism.

Steele cautions that a news organization "operates in peril" without comprehensive policies for its online journalism. "It sends its journalists into an ethical minefield with no guidance on how to protect themselves," he says.


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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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