A few days back a Post reader in Maryland called to report, with some excitement, that he had discovered a comma missing in a news story. He was right.
One day this week a caller said, "I have one thing to say: Richard Cohen's column last Sunday was terrific." And he hung up.
Recently, Art Buchwald, tongue firmly in cheek as usual, wanted to know how one qualifies for The Post's obiturary page. He was assured that he has the credentials, although no one hopes he has need for them any time soon.
More serious calls and letters arrive in volume. Occasional visitors come by to make a point. Over the past couple of weeks, members of the local Italian community said more coverage should have been given to the consequences of the recent earthquake in Italy. Organizers of this year's St. Patrick's Day parade in Washington were dissatisfied with The Post's coverage of the event.Pro-Israelis didn't like some of the recent stories out of the Middle East. Some subscribers in Alexandria failed to get reviews of "The Little Foxes" in their papers. Coverage of the coming election in Prince George's County drew objections. Fans of Robert E. Lee High School were less than flattered with the attention The Post gave their state championship victories.
A couple of readers wanted to know why the First Lady, in contradiction to Post style, received a "Mrs," on the second mention of her name in a news story. (It was a mistake.) Compliemnts, though fewer, are also called in.
The dialogue is daily. Every reporter and editor spends part of his or her time responding to someone who has a comment on a story. They should. It is one way of staying in touch. Besides, Post readers insist on being heard, as they should.
All the more regrettable are findings in a new Brookings Institution book, "The Washington Reporters," by Stephen Hess. Hess surveyed the Washington press corps and, among many things, discovered this: "A fourth of Washington reporters receive no letters or calls from readers or listeners; wire service and radio reporters almost never hear from their consumers; two-thirds of the press corps get three or fewer letters or phone calls in a week. 'I consider more than six letters a month a landslide, a member of a chain bureau. Of those in mass media, only television network correspondents get an appreciable response from their audiences."
Since, in this passage, Hess is primarily discussing reporters who are producing news for out-of-town papers or radio and television programs, it is unfair to compare the responses they receive with those of The Post, a local newspaper.
Still, important linkage with readers is missing for these reporters, who are in the city by the hundreds and who produce a high percentage of the nation's news. Even at The Post, editors and reporters should find more time to explain how the paper does what it does and to hear from their audience.
In the case of the out-of-town press, readers or listeners must let their reactions be know, and news staffs have a very real obligation to produce evidence that consumer responses matter. Not every reader or listener will be satisfied, but by communicating he or she can make the audience a presence in news rooms.
Two extraordinarily important elements of producing news are involved: accountability and credibility. Without the first, reporters and editors fail to receive a discipline to which they should be subjected. And without the second, a news organization is meaningless.