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As online journalism evolves, Post needs to share its standards

By Andrew Alexander
Friday, November 12, 2010; 8:07 PM

Less than a week before Election Day, the Internet lit up over a salacious story on Gawker.com in which a man recounted a boozy sleepover years earlier with Christine O'Donnell, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate from Delaware. He wrote anonymously and his story contained no comment from O'Donnell or her campaign.

An "aggregation blogger" on The Post's Universal Desk, which processes both print and online news content, sought guidance from senior news director Sara Goo. The story was spreading like wildfire, but The Post had nothing on its Web site. Should it link to the Gawker story? "Don't touch it," Goo instructed.

But hours later, The Post's online Opinions page devoted a blog post to it. In a funny critique, editorial page writer Alexandra Petri mimicked the Gawker story and linked to it.

The contrasting decisions illustrate the challenge of interpreting traditional print standards in the digital age. Whether they deal with news or opinion, Post journalists often find themselves in uncharted waters. In a medium with an inherent need for speed, how strictly should the old rules of authentication and fairness be applied?

"It's like walking on egg shells," Goo said. "It's magnified because we're in a highly competitive environment where seconds matter."

The impulse to pull the trigger can cause embarrassment. In June, with legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden near death, an online staffer overheard newsroom chatter that led him to conclude erroneously that he had died. Without verification, the news was soon reported on the Web site and rocketed through the Internet, leaving The Post red-faced.

Early next year, The Post will begin mandatory standards and ethics training for everyone in the newsroom. It can't come soon enough.

The Post's Stylebook includes lengthy sections offering guidance on everything from fairness to the use of anonymous sources. When I've discussed them with newsroom veterans, most have confessed it's been years since they read them. New employees receive little more than a short lecture about their importance. Of greater concern, however, is the broad confusion over how they should be applied online.

There's much to sort out. The accelerated shift to digital news delivery has exposed fundamental differences between Post journalists rooted in print and those oriented to new media. The divide has grown with an influx of new employees, many with little or no experience in actual newsgathering. Among new hires in the newsroom this year, those working online in producing and editing roles far outnumber those hired for traditional newsgathering.

"We have a new mix of skills in the newsroom," noted Peter Perl, the assistant managing editor for personnel who heads a group designing the training sessions. "The Web has presented questions about how the old standards apply" online, he said, and the training will offer guidance on "what's usable, and under what circumstances."

Those are key questions as news consumption habits rapidly change. In a book released last week, veteran journalists and media experts Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel cite research showing that "six in ten of those [reading] online get news assembled for them by aggregators" who provide links to multiple sources. In "Blur: How to Know What's True in the Age of Information Overload," they argue that for quality journalism to thrive, news organizations such as The Post must "help authenticate for us what facts are true and reliable."

Verification is key, Rosenstiel told me. But he also argued that news organizations should be more transparent in explaining their print and online policies to readers.

"If you're aggregating other people's material," he said, "It may be as simple as providing a box explaining how you aggregate. You don't control the material, but you can explain how you decide what material to use."

And, he said, it's valuable to invite readers to weigh in on how to define evolving online standards.

The Post does not share its internal policies. It should make them public. The lengthy "Standards and Ethics" section of its Stylebook, along with newer guidelines on the use of social media, are inspiring. Yes, readers would often cite them when they think The Post has fallen short. But what's the point of setting high standards if you're afraid to be held to them?

More than a year ago, in the aftermath of The Post's ill-conceived plan to sell sponsorships to "salon" dinners, Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli pledged to make its journalistic standards public. With mandatory newsroom training about to begin, now's a good time.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the omblog at voices.washingtonpost.com/ombudsman-blog/.

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