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Post policies fuel reader confusion on when writers can offer opinion

By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, July 4, 2010; A17

When she offers opinions on cable talk shows, Cathy Areu is sometimes identified as a contributing editor for The Washington Post Magazine.

On one program, she called Sarah Palin a "fearmonger." On another, she argued for affirmative action. On yet another, she spoke approvingly of Sonia Sotomayor during the debate over her Supreme Court nomination.

Some readers have contacted me, wondering how The Post could allow one of its editors to so publicly proclaim her biases.

In fact, Areu has no official affiliation with The Post. Despite the "contributing editor" label, she isn't on the magazine's staff. Her only connection is as an outside contributor who has interviewed public figures and edited their remarks to fewer than 400 words for the magazine's "First Person Singular" feature. Her "day job," as she puts it, is as founding publisher and editorial director for Catalina magazine, which is geared toward Hispanic women.

The fault isn't with Areu. She sought permission to be identified as a "contributing editor" and The Post agreed, giving her a beneficial association with a globally recognized news brand. But in doing so, The Post has confused readers and provided ammunition to critics who say it's agenda-driven.

The remedy seems simple. Areu's "contributing editor" label amounts to fiction and should be ended before it provokes more allegations of institutional bias.

At a time when "journalism" is being redefined, Areu's situation serves as an example of a broader challenge to The Post's long-standing pledge of newsroom impartiality. This is most evident in the unrelenting drive to expand The Post's brand online, which is key to its survival. Where reporters once were encouraged to conceal their opinions, some Post journalists now are hired to express them on the Web site. This can puzzle readers, especially when the journalist's work is then featured in the newspaper, presented as if that person is neutral.

Ezra Klein, one of The Post's most talented and stimulating young journalists, writes online from a liberal perspective. His Web site bio promotes his "opinionated blog" on economic and domestic policy issues. He is featured on the site's Opinions page, alongside other columnists with well-defined ideologies. But in the Business section of Sunday's newspaper, Klein writes a column that is more analysis than dogma and contains no descriptive identification beyond his name and area of expertise. Should print-only readers, unaware of the slant of his blog, be told that he's a well-established liberal?

David Weigel, hired earlier this year to blog for The Post about conservatives, resigned recently after it was revealed that he had written derisive and inflammatory comments for an e-mail discussion group about some leading figures in the movement he was covering. The disclosures brought protests from conservatives, who said the comments showed Weigel was biased against them. It also prompted questions from perplexed readers who wondered about Weigel's role. Had he been hired to report on, or offer opinions about, conservatives?

Like readers, some in The Post's newsroom are perplexed. Internal guidelines say reporters should not "offer personal opinions on a blog in a way that would not be acceptable in the newspaper." But they also are encouraged to blog with attitude and "voice," which seems incompatible with neutrality.

Similarly, internal rules governing public appearances say that except for opinion columnists, "Post journalists should avoid making statements that could call into question their objectivity." But in a typical week, Post reporters make dozens of appearances on television and radio programs where they are pressed for their views on the news of the day. Many oblige.

In my conversations with a dozen Post reporters in recent weeks, not one had more than a passing familiarity with these rules and guidelines. None knew where they exist, so that they can be consulted. (They reside on The Post's intranet but are well hidden.)

Like all legacy media, The Post is grappling to set proper standards for a new, fast-changing era. It's most difficult for the vast majority of Post journalists who play the traditional reporter's role, prowling beats and trolling for information that enlightens and entertains. Increasingly, they are being asked to expand The Post's brand on new media platforms that don't strictly adhere to the time-honored just-the-facts approach.

Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli acknowledged that readers may be confused by Post journalists who "wear more than one hat" when they "opine in one forum and appear to report in another forum."

The solution, he said, is to be "completely transparent about what people do . . . and completely transparent about where people stand."

And those in "traditional reporting positions," he said, should remain "nonpartisan, unbiased and free from slant in their presentation in the paper and in any other public forum. There should be no appearance of conflict."

I agree that greater transparency is critical. At a time of hyper-sensitivity to bias, credibility is enhanced when The Post is explicit about its journalists' roles. And for those asked to offer a viewpoint, their ideological perspective should be highlighted, not obscured.

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

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