The Washington Post deleted a reporter's Jan. 27, 2010 blog post on the newspaper's website that was critical of the relationship between The Post's editorial board and a prominent local school official, and reposted a redacted version of the same story a few hours later without notifying readers that the post had been altered. The episode highlighted an ongoing debate over the extent to which news organizations should notify readers of changes to online content.
In a January 27 post on the paper's D.C. Schools Insider blog, Washington Post education reporter Bill Turque wrote that he had been scooped the previous day by Post editorial writer Jo-Ann Armao regarding specific information about teacher layoffs. Turque wrote that he had been seeking additional information from Washington D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Michelle Rhee regarding comments she had made in a Fast Company interview in which she said that DCPS had conducted layoffs of "teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school."
According to a January 29 story in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), the Fast Company story did not clarify how many of the 266 teachers who were laid off had such serious infractions on their records. But Turque continued to press the DCPS for specific numbers that could shed some light on Rhee's comments. Instead of providing the information to Turque, Rhee passed the information on to Armao, who the CJR story described as "an editorial board member who regularly, and relatively sympathetically, writes on Rhee's efforts to remake the city's troubled school system."
In his blog post, Turque wrote that Rhee's office had selectively chosen to provide information to Armao rather than to him, although he had been working on the same story, because the paper's editorial board - of which Armao is a member - had historically written favorably about Rhee. Armao's editorials, Turque wrote, were "a guaranteed soft landing spot for uncomfortable or inconvenient disclosures - kind of a print version of the Larry King Show."
"The chancellor is clearly more comfortable speaking with Jo-Ann, which is wholly unsurprising. I'm a beat reporter charged with covering, as fully and fairly as I can, an often turbulent story about the chancellor's attempts to fix the District's public schools," Turque wrote in his original January 27 post. "Jo-Ann, on the other hand, sits on an editorial board whose support for the chancellor has been steadfast, protective and, at times, adoring."
The blog entry was removed from The Post's website the same day, but later reposted with several portions altered by Managing Editor Liz Spayd, according to a January 28 blog post by The Post's ombudsman, Andrew Alexander. The "Larry King" characterization made by Turque was gone in the new blog post, and the description of the editorial board's support for Rhee was changed from "steadfast, protective and, at times, adoring" to simply "steadfast."
According to Alexander's post, Spayd "felt that Turque's characterizations were unfair." Turque said that Spayd called the original January 27 post "completely inappropriate" and said that Turque "had no place as a beat reporter taking on the editorial board."
In the January 29 CJR story, staff writer Clint Hendler wrote that "Turque's post appealed to me as a rare look at a newsroom's internecine battles. But it also was a pithy explanation of the games sources play, of the different jobs of the beat reporter and the editorialist, and a reassertion of the oft-doubted wall between the two. It was a refreshing and honest item - the kind of behind-the-scenes story that I know many readers would like to see more of."
Hendler also criticized The Post for not explaining their revisions. "If the papers' editors think his post crossed the line, they should say why - not only publicly, but on their own site," Hendler wrote.
In a January 27 post on the website for the Washington City Paper's website, then-editor Erik Wemple reproduced Turque's original post in its entirety, and criticized The Post for having removed and revised the content without notifying readers. In a follow-up post on January 28, Wemple emphasized again that the paper should have notified readers about the change. "[T]he entire episode speaks to the newspaper's inability to graduate from Web 101," Wemple wrote. "The subtext here is that, 'Hey, it's just a blog post - it's not the paper. You can take it down, pass it around, whatever.'"
In a February 7 story, Alexander responded to the criticism by calling for greater online transparency, writing that the Turque episode highlighted the need for a standardized set of policies for revising content online. Although The Post does have policies for revising online content, the guidelines remain "tucked away on an internal Post Web site" and have not been widely consulted, despite the integration of the print and online editions of the newspaper, Alexander wrote.
"With the (online) corrections policy, it's clear that a lot of people either don't know one exists or are confused because they couldn't find it," Raju Narisetti, the managing editor who oversees The Post's website said in Alexander's February 7 story.
According to Alexander, The Post's existing policies are being examined, and a "draft of updated guidelines is in the final review stage."
Kelly McBride, of the Poynter Institute, said the key to avoiding similar problems in the future is transparency on the part of newspapers, according to the February 7 story.
"People start to not trust you and it damages your credibility," McBride said. "It really does undermine credibility to a substantial degree when you just take stuff down [or] when you correct an error of fact without noting that you corrected it."
- RUTH DEFOSTER
SILHA RESEARCH ASSISTANT