After a blog rewrite, a call for online transparency

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By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, February 7, 2010

Online readers of The Post could be excused for feeling deceived. On Jan. 27, many read a blog entry by education reporter Bill Turque that said the paper's editorial board had been "protective and, at times, adoring" in its treatment of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.

Suddenly, Turque's blog entry disappeared. Readers trying to access it got this: "We are unable to locate the page you requested." When the entry reappeared several hours later, references to the editorial board's treatment of Rhee had been toned down.

The entry had been ordered removed and rewritten by Managing Editor Liz Spayd, who felt Turque's characterizations were unfair. She now acknowledges it was a mistake to repost it without an explanation. Many online readers justifiably ridiculed The Post for its lack of transparency.

The incident underscores a broader problem in the newsroom, which is under intense pressure to expand The Post's online audience. Last year, the once-separate print and online staffs were fully integrated. But not all online policies have been widely shared or implemented with the now-unified newsroom. Thus, many staffers have been operating without clear guidance on how to revise online content.

This is especially true of blogs, where inconsistencies abound. Of nearly a dozen staff bloggers I queried last week, none was aware whether The Post has written policies for revising content online. Some said that if they need to make a revision, they simply create a newer version without any notification to readers of what was changed. Several others said they correct errors in the accompanying online comments, although they acknowledged that most readers wouldn't know to look there. Since most blog entries are edited before being posted, it appears that many editors are equally unaware of standardized policies for updating online content. Those policies have existed, tucked away on an internal Post Web site. But they were not widely shared when the print and online operations were integrated.

The problem was raised with top editors even before the Turque blog incident. In an e-mail several weeks ago, online features editor Nancy Kerr suggested the need for consistent policies now that print and online staffs are combined. "Have we made a policy decision on how to handle these corrections?" she asked. That triggered a look at the existing policies, and a draft of updated guidelines is in the final review stage.

"With the [online] corrections policy, it's clear that a lot of people either don't know one exists or are confused because they couldn't find it," acknowledged Raju Narisetti, the managing editor who oversees The Post's Web site.

Correcting errors in the newspaper is simple; corrections typically appear in a box on Page A2. But revisions on the Web can be complex. In addition to stories and blogs, changes can be required for video and mobile news alerts. And beyond corrections, online content must constantly be updated or clarified. Credibility can suffer if this is not done immediately, continuously and prominently. Readers risk relying on outdated or incorrect information.

The key is transparency, said Kelly McBride, an online ethics expert with the Poynter Institute on media studies in Florida. There's no need to alert readers when a small typo has been fixed, she said. But failing to clearly correct factual errors, or not coming clean about the reasons a blog post was altered, amount to playing with fire.

"People start to not trust you and it damages your credibility," she said. "It really does undermine credibility to a substantial degree when you just take stuff down [and] when you correct an error of fact without noting that you corrected it."

Readers notice. Michele Kerr, who lives in the San Francisco area and reads The Post online, e-mailed me after the Turque blog incident. "To force a rewrite and then pretend the original didn't exist is unacceptable," she said, asserting that it amounted to "rewriting history."

Internal Post e-mails dating back to 2008 show robust discussion among leaders of the then-separate online staff about the importance of standards for revising Web content. "I think we'll get clobbered for 'covering up' if we change anything much that's been posted without leaving a trail," wrote Hal Straus, who remains a top Web editor. In light of the Turque situation, his concern was prophetic.

McBride said it's critical to "make sure everyone in the newsroom knows what the standards are."

Given the importance of online revisions, the integrated newsroom should have been given updated policies long ago. Better late than sorry again.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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