Update: I’m going to re-use (and expand) on a line I used today in a private email exchange about the Washington Post Digital Publishing Guidelines: The Post’s 2009 social media policy was like a red light to Post journalists using social media. The new guidelines are more like a flashing yellow light. I would prefer a green light with a “drive safely” sign. But I welcome the improvement from red to yellow. Now here’s the original post, published earlier today.
Two years ago, I blogged that the Washington Post needed thoughtful conversations about smart use of social media, rather than a restrictive policy.
So I applaud that the Post is now having those conversations and sharing them with the public. I applaud without for a minute suggesting that my criticism was any part of the reason.
I don’t have the time or inclination to go point by point through the Post’s Digital Publishing Guidelines, detailing what I agree or disagree with. I did react at length in 2009: responding initially (linked above) to an ombudsman column explaining but not linking to the guidelines, then publishing the guidelines themselves after Staci Kramer published them at paidContent, then following up twice, once on the topic of trust and once on objectivity. That was probably an excessive response at the time. I blogged a lot in 2009 about newsroom social media policies. While I remain interested in the topic and note important developments such as this, I’m trying to exercise a bit more restraint now and have other demands on my time.
I generally don’t favor rules as extensive as these new guidelines, broken into separate sections on sourcing, attribution, self-publishing, taste and tone, social media, third-party content and corrections and clarifications. But the guidelines are presented as advice, rather than rules, and explicitly encourage further discussion and continued evolution. I offer a lot of lengthy advice myself, and, as already noted, I specifically called for more and better discussion of these issues by the Post. So I will praise the guidelines generally as an important development.
By and large, the guidelines offer Post journalists (and the industry at large) a lot of good advice for digital publishing (not limited just to social media), along with specific examples of how to follow the advice. The guidelines at times sound more fearful and rigid than I would like and less trusting of journalists’ good judgment, but they are moving notably and substantially in a less fearful and rigid, more trusting direction, so I welcome the direction rather than quibbling about details.
A few points I will make:
- Last year the Post failed to correct an error in fact that I had noted in an email to the reporter, specifically asking for a correction. So I am specifically pleased with the strong statement that the Post “always seeks to publish corrections and clarifications promptly after they come to our attention.” I hope the Post and individual staff members carry through on this practice.
- The Post is notorious among local bloggers for failing to note when they got to a story before the Post, or for vague attribution only to “a local blogger,” so I am pleased with this statement: “E-mail alerts, social-media postings, and other digital news reports based on non-Post reporting should clearly attribute the information to its specific source.” I am sure it will be appreciated (perhaps with justified skepticism) by the many bloggers my former staff at TBD recruited to our community network.
- The Post apparently is unaware of the perception (and, I believe, the reality) that it uses confidential sources far too readily, and at times in circumstances that do not justify confidentiality. While I agree with the guidelines’ admonition that “We must be careful when aggregating information that is being reported by other news organizations based on anonymous sources,” I had to laugh at presenting it with no recognition of the Post’s own promiscuity in granting confidentiality (in fact, the guidelines followed that with a stern statement about its own high standards in granting confidentiality). I’ll also repeat here my continuing irritation at journalists’ use of the term “anonymous sources.” It’s bad enough that most news organizations, especially in Washington coverage, erode our credibility by overuse of unnamed sources. But using the term “anonymous” to describe them makes it sound as though we don’t even know who they are. To me, an anonymous source is someone whose identity the reporter doesn’t know, such as a caller who will not give his or her name. And such a person would never actually be a source, just a tipster. If you know the sources and know how they know the information, let’s call them confidential sources.
If you’d like to read more, I encourage checking the criticism by my friend and former colleague Dan Gillmor, a digital journalism pioneer now teaching at the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. I also encourage reading Post Ombudsman Patrick Pexton’s explanation of the guidelines.
(Interestingly, Pexton said that Gillmor would have preferred shorter guidelines, “but he’ll take the guidelines as positive.” Pexton also said Gillmor and Jay Rosen were “praising the guidelines overall: their transparency and their flexibility.” Gillmor’s headline described the guidelines as “endless and mostly meaningless,” which is hardly positive. As for transparency, Gillmor said the Post should have published an early draft of the guidelines and sought feedback, instead of keeping the conversation internal as long as it did. And on flexibility, Gillmor said the guidelines reflect “the Post’s remarkably rigid view of its world.” Dan’s post was not entirely critical, and perhaps he was more positive in private communication with Pexton, but I don’t think the Post’s PR spokesperson could have put a more positive spin on Gillmor’s criticism than the ombudsman did. I have emailed Pexton, inviting him to respond.) If you read the stricken material and the strike-through puzzles you, please read the comments.
I’m getting dangerously close to going on at length after I said I wouldn’t (or maybe I passed that a couple paragraphs ago). I will close with an acknowledgement that I know at least four of the Post journalists cited for developing the guidelines. Though I would not describe any as close friends, I have known Peter Perl, the assistant managing editor who led the process, for several years and had a friendly exchange of emails with him earlier this summer.
Again, I applaud Peter and his Post colleagues, and the top Post editors, for having these conversations and sharing them with the public and the profession.