It’s a fact of journalistic life today that blog entries aren’t vetted as thoroughly as fully reported news stories are. With The Post’s blogs, 59 at my last count, entries are edited, but there is less time — and often fewer editors — to handle them compared with columns or news stories intended for the paper.
That drives many readers crazy; they write to me frequently to say that anything with the imprimatur of the Washington Post should carry the same high standards for fairness and accuracy, period. They’re right; it’s a worthy goal.
But blogs are designed to be quick and to be first so as to beat the competition. They also are written to be more conversational, less formal, more engaging. I think there’s room for that in journalism.
But I do get two or three complaints a week about what readers call “junk” ending up on Post blogs. One such instance occurred this week.
The Enliven Project, a new nonprofit advocacy group that promotes more open discussion of sexual violence, produced the infographic. After being directed to it by a tweet from Laura Bassett, a reporter who covers politics and women’s issues for the Huffington Post, Matthews put the infographic on Wonkblog. It ran with a short introduction and the headline, “The saddest graph you’ll see today.”
Pulling charts and infographics from think tanks, government agencies and universities is something Wonkblog does every day as part of its mission to explain policy. Most of the time it works effectively. In this case, the rape infographic — which selected data from the Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey, FBI reports and other studies — went viral very quickly; I saw links to it all over Twitter, Facebook and other social media.
One reader wrote to me and Matthews, however, to say that it was distorted, misleading and a lie. Over the next couple of days, this insistent reader wrote repeatedly to me to highlight critiques of the infographic, which were multiplying on the Internet among “men’s rights” groups and defense lawyers. One even came from one Amanda Marcotte, a progressive writer on women’s issues who is with The Post’s sister publication Slate.
Now let me explain my own biases. I covered gender issues in the military in the 1990s, a time when the Pentagon was first putting women in many new roles, both noncombat and combat. The harassment that women coming into those units faced was horrific, unjustified and wrong. I have also spent a lot of time around cops and courts, and I have done volunteer work for a domestic violence shelter in D.C. I know that sexual and physical violence against women is a profound problem in this country, too often not discussed openly, too often resulting in permanent physical and psychological damage to women and too often unsuccessfully prosecuted.
I read the studies that underlay the infographic and its critiques. Individually, some of the statistics that Enliven used do appear in the studies. But Enliven made assumptions and extrapolations in consolidating this information into one graphic, rendering it misleading.
A Post editor read through the blog post before it was published. Matthews later updated it with a couple of sentences that included this: “Rape statistics are notoriously hard to collect. . . . [B]e aware that the exact numbers are subject to dispute.”
Matthews also told me he later that he “was operating on the assumption that [Enliven], like most think tanks would, used numbers directly from an obscure data source rather than extrapolating, and I wish they had made that more clear.”
He did e-mail Enliven to get more from them on their methodology, but the blog post was published before Enliven replied. “In retrospect, my main regret was that we published before we got a reply,” Matthews said. “I don’t know that I wouldn’t have posted, but I would have done so with the kind of caveats that eventually made it into the post.”
The blog post generated a lot of Web hits for The Post and the Enliven Project. It stirred controversy and discussion of sexual violence. But it damaged Wonkblog’s credibility, and that of The Post, and harmed the legitimate issue of addressing violence against women.
Real reporting takes time, analysis, and inquiry. Post bloggers need to be more careful.
Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.