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Got Rules? Then Don't Be Afraid to Share Them

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.

The issues are numerous. What are the ethical standards for editing visual images or audio content? What rules should govern the treatment of information obtained through Twitter or social networking sites such as Facebook? What are the policies for posting user-generated content, such as photos? What are the verification guidelines for linking to non-Post material from The Post's Web site? Should there be policies covering taste online, where greater latitude is allowed in reader comments?

Some newspapers are formally tackling these questions. At the Los Angeles Times, a newsroom Standards and Practices Committee has been grappling with online issues. No similar formalized discussion has begun at The Post, perhaps because its new team of top editors has been consumed by transforming the operation while downsizing the staff in a challenging economy.

A separate question is whether The Post adheres to the policies in place. In my first two months as ombudsman, I've found a disturbing lack of attention to the standards and ethics rules.

New hires are taught about them as part of their orientation. But a surprising number of staffers told me it's been years since they reviewed them. And several said they simply don't adhere to some of the policies on confidential sources, including a requirement that "the source of anything that appears in the paper will be known to at least one editor."

Why have policies if they aren't followed?

One way to ensure adherence is to let the public see them. Readers are smart, and many are darn good at holding reporters accountable through what we in the business call "prosecutorial editing."

It takes a leap of faith to make the policies public. But a good newspaper, confident that it can meet its own high standards, should welcome the scrutiny.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

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