|This is rich WASH POST The Guidelines We Use to Report the News |
A Note to Our Readers
The Guidelines We Use to Report the News
By Leonard Downie Jr.
Sunday, March 7, 2004; Page B01
A succession of well-publicized missteps by the news media in recent years -- from misrepresentation of facts and questionable reporting methods to outright fabrication and plagiarism -- has understandably shaken public trust in the media. The Washington Post, like several other large news organizations, has responded by reviewing our policies on accuracy, fairness and our relationships with news sources and readers.
We have spent several months on this effort and recently produced a restatement of our policies covering, among other things, reporting techniques, use of direct quotations, attribution of information, use of confidential sources and corrections of our mistakes. We are now discussing these policies in detail with the hundreds of reporters and editors in our newsroom and in our bureaus around the Washington area, the nation and the world. The conversations go to the heart of what we do and how we do it. I want to tell you, our readers, about these guidelines.
Many of our policies are long-standing. They reflect our commitment to honest dealings with readers and news sources. But people working in our newsroom had questions about how to carry out the policies in these more complicated, multimedia times. The speed with which information travels now requires us to make judgments more quickly than ever. We want to be first with the news, but we also want to be right. We don't want competitive pressures to compromise our commitment to accuracy.
So we have updated and expanded our guidelines to help us publish stories that are accurate and complete. That goal has become more challenging in an era of Internet-borne rumors, talk-show speculation and sophisticated spinning by newsmakers who want to influence how the news is reported while hiding their responsibility for doing so.
We realize it can be frustrating for readers when we publish information attributed to unnamed sources, even when we are confident that the sources are knowledgeable and reliable. We want to make as clear as possible to our readers where the information that we report is coming from, so they can judge it for themselves. That means attributing information that comes from other news media. It means fully identifying, whenever possible, the sources of the information we publish in our own reporting.
Many people and institutions we cover try to avoid being identified as the sources of information in our stories. For example, it is standard practice in Washington and elsewhere for government officials to talk to reporters only "on background," meaning that what they say cannot be attributed to them by name. The White House routinely requires that top officials giving groups of reporters briefings on policy issues be identified only as "administration officials." Even the official spokesmen for government agencies, politicians, companies and other organizations often try to give us information that cannot be attributed to them by name.
Just last week, President Bush spent 80 minutes speaking to five White House correspondents from the major television networks on "deep background" in the Oval Office. The correspondents agreed that they could not quote what he said, attribute any of the information to him, or even acknowledge that they had talked to him. Later that day, NBC White House reporter David Gregory said on the "Nightly News": "The president has told people he believes tonight's Super Tuesday results mark the real beginning of the general election. Feeling that his conservative base is secure, Mr. Bush is now studying [Democratic presidential candidate John] Kerry's positions and preparing to target the senator's record."
Our White House reporter, Mike Allen, was not invited to the session. He was able to write the next day that "word of the meeting got around before it was over. Several people provided accounts of it . . . but spoke only on the condition of anonymity because, in the view of the White House, and by the agreement of the networks, the conversation never officially occurred." According to Allen's reporting, the conversation with the president apparently covered domestic politics and foreign policy, subjects about which voters likely would want to know the president's unscripted views, in his own words.
Like our readers, we would like all sources of information in this newspaper to be named. We are restating this preference in our new policy statement, and we are reminding our reporters to try to put government officials and other sources of information "on the record" by name whenever possible, even if it means objecting to traditional Washington practices such as "background briefings."
We are torn every day between the goal of explaining fully where our information is coming from and our obligation to give readers an accurate and thorough account of what is going on in the world. We recognize, as we believe our readers do, that some sources who have significant information -- often information needed to hold powerful people and institutions accountable for their actions -- would be risking their jobs or even their safety if they were identified. We cannot always expect named sources to contradict the official line or policy of the officials, agencies or companies for which they work.
If Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had been required to name all their sources in their Watergate stories, for example, they would not have been able to report much of that scandal. More recently, it would have been more difficult for The Post to reveal problems with the care of animals at the National Zoo or report on lead contamination in the District's water supply without the help of unnamed sources, even though those stories also relied on named sources and supporting documentation.
At the same time, the culture of anonymity in dealings with the news media has proliferated. Promises of confidentiality reduce risks for sources, but they also deprive readers of important information. Reporters and editors working together must weigh the costs and benefits to differentiate between those sources who truly need anonymity and those who are using it as a cover for their agendas.
That's why we will try to explain to readers why a source is not being named. We also will strive to tell our readers as much as we can about why such a source would be knowledgeable and whether the source has a particular point of view -- for example, "a police official involved in the investigation," "an aide to a Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee" or "a senior Pentagon official who disagrees with the administration's policy." We want at least one Post editor to know the identity of each unnamed source cited in the newspaper, as was the case during Watergate, so that editors can help decide whether to use the source in a story.
We also strive to treat our sources fairly by putting their statements in context to present what they say accurately. When we quote someone in The Post, the quotation should be the words that were spoken. We should not alter a quotation to make it easier to understand or to correct the speaker's use of language. When necessary to make clear what someone is intending to say or to avoid embarrassing someone who has difficulty using the language, we may opt to avoid quotation and paraphrase what was said instead.
We realize that the complicated process of producing a daily newspaper can be mysterious, even daunting, to our readers. Although individual bylines appear on most of our stories, everything we publish is the product of many people working in collaboration: reporters, researchers, supervising editors, copy editors, photographers, graphic artists, page designers and more. Each story receives multiple reviews before publication. We try to be careful in everything we do.
But it is inevitable that, in producing an entirely new newspaper containing more than 100,000 words on deadline, every day of the year, we will make mistakes. We want to correct errors that appear in The Post. We hope readers will continue to bring errors to our attention. We have asked our colleagues to be receptive to complaints from readers and to involve the appropriate editor in requests for corrections. In our newsroom, we discuss issues of accuracy, journalistic ethics and standards constantly. Our written policies are broad, and we do not expect them to provide simple answers to all situations that arise in daily journalism. So we augment them with the countless decisions that must be made by our journalists in reporting, writing, editing and presenting each day's stories.
We welcome your assistance in our efforts to minimize mistakes and to maximize accuracy. We will soon set up a new phone number and e-mail address to make it easier for readers to report errors. They will appear on page A2, our standard location for corrections.
Letters to the editor can be sent to The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our ombudsman, Michael Getler, can be reached at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
And comments about the policies I have discussed here can be sent to me at 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20071, or to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Leonard Downie is executive editor of The Post.