Re­port­ing vs. opin­ing: A gray area to clear up

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - OM­BUDS­MAN AN­DREW ALEXAN­DER An­drew Alexan­der can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at om­buds­man@wash­post.com. For daily up­dates, read the Omblog at http://voices.wash­ing­ton­post.com/om­buds­man-blog/.

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 long­stand­ing 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?

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.

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