Washington Post Ombudsman Finds Few Staffers Know Opinionating Rules


In the wake of the Dave Weigel controversy at the Washington Post, the paper’s ombudsman Andrew Alexander admits there are numerous instances of reporters, bloggers, and “contributing editors” offering their opinions under the WaPo brand but few knew that guidelines even existed on proper conduct.

Underscoring the blurred lines when reporters and bloggers also offer opinions–both for the paper and in media appearances–WaPo’s Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli acknowledged to Alexander “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,'” and suggested there should be more transparency about what people do and where people stand.

Alexander cited the examples of Weigel, Ezra Klein and Cathy Areu in raising concerns about how readers are supposed to know when objective reporters also offer opinions.  In the case of Areu, a freelancer blessed with a “contributing editor” title while she spends time as a pundit for CNN and other cable news programs, Alexander said the paper had “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.”

While reporters were once hired to be impartial, Alexander explained that staffers like Klein are hired to offer opinions and therefore it was necessary to explain to readers–both in print and online–that he isn’t offering news, even when he appears in the business section instead of the opinion section.

It appears that WaPo staffers are as confused about the rules as readers when it comes to news versus offering opinions. Alexander said that he spoke with a dozen WaPo reporters about the Post’s guidelines that say reporters should not “offer personal opinions on a blog in a way that would not be acceptable in the newspaper” and that none of them seemed familiar with the rules which live on the paper’s intranet.

Although Alexander acknowledged that the Post, like most legacy media, gives mixed-messages when it comes to impartiality and “expand[ing] The Post’s brand on new media platforms that don’t strictly adhere to the time-honored just-the-facts approach,” he quoted Brauchli as saying “traditional reporting positions” should remain unbiased.

But who has  “traditional reporting positions” at the paper?  Are all bloggers considered non-traditional?  While Weigel had a lot of opinions in private and went on MSNBC to offer his views on conservatives, it’s not clear that his actual work at the Post wasn’t traditional reporting because he was generally praised for his objective coverage of the conservative movement.

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