Hard-hitting stories in The Post typically generate strong reader reaction. But the response to one last Monday [“Obama administration gives billions in stimulus money without environmental safeguards”] focused less on the content and more on who provided it.
The lengthy A-section story detailed how the Obama administration has distributed about $2 billion in stimulus money to some of the nation’s biggest polluters for projects that have been exempted from environmental oversight. It was written by Kristen Lombardi and John Solomon, journalists who work for the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity.
The center is well known among journalists. Its Web site says the “non-partisan and non-advocacy” news organization is “dedicated to producing original, responsible investigative journalism on issues of public concern.”
But after Monday’s story, more than a dozen readers called or e-mailed asking: What is the Center for Public Integrity? They’d never heard of it, and there was no explanation with the story.
Others questioned its neutrality. Douglas H. Green, a District resident, e-mailed that he was “startled” to see The Post publish a story produced by an organization that “often gives a biased, anti-business view on environmental topics.”
Green, an attorney who represents the electric utility industry on environmental matters, said the story “creates the perception that the work is The Post’s – and with it the perception, at least among regulators and industry representatives, that The Post endorses the center’s views. That perception clearly compromises The Post’s reputation for unbiased and objective reporting.”
Michael Johnson of Crofton said the story “promoted a cause” and urged The Post to “report on the center’s work, but don’t surrender your responsibility to it.”
The Post increasingly carries stories from nontraditional, editorially independent news organizations such as the center, ProPublica and Kaiser Health News. They are funded by contributions from foundations and individuals, and staffed by respected journalists. The Post vets their work before publication and sometimes partners on stories. This allows The Post, its newsroom diminished through buyouts, to stretch resources and coverage.
My inquiry indicates that the center’s story received extensive editing and scrutiny on its six-month journey to publication. Solomon, a veteran journalist and former Post reporter, said work began last spring with the center filing Freedom of Information Act requests for documents from the federal government. “And I think we did over 100 interviews,” he said. Around Labor Day, he pitched the story to Post Executive Editor Marcus W. Brauchli, who expressed interest.
“After we had done all of our reporting, and before we gave it to The Washington Post, it went through an extraordinary fact-checking process,” Solomon said. That required footnoting every fact – 179 in all, he said – before a line-by-line review by a fact-checker for the center.
From there, it went to Jeff Leen, The Post’s investigations editor, who has been part of a handful of Pulitzer Prize-winning projects. After his initial edit, it received more detailed editing by Steve Reiss, a newsroom veteran who specializes in longer “enterprise” stories. Because the story focused on federal environmental oversight, he asked that it be reviewed by Frances Stead Sellers, who coordinates Post coverage of health, science and the environment. In turn, she had it reviewed by two national staff reporters with expertise in energy and the environment. All told, it went through about a half dozen layers of scrutiny. There were numerous revisions.
“This one had plenty of internal eyes on it from a variety of perspectives,” said Reiss.
But even solid reporting can be suspect if readers are puzzled by who’s producing it. That was evident from the response to this story, and it should be a concern for The Post as it publishes more journalism by outside news organizations. Readers like the familiarity of Post bylines. They’re less comfortable if they don’t know who’s providing their news.
The best remedy is disclosure, which was lacking in this case. In print, The Post should have published a description of the center, its Web address and an explanation of how the story came together.
Online, where space is unlimited, it could have done more. A link to the center’s Web site, for instance, provides a list of its financial contributors and even its tax returns. Its past investigative projects are available for readers to judge the quality of its journalism. There are staff bios.
The Post typically has offered only minimal background information with stories by outside news organizations. There should be much more, including an explanation of The Post’s role in the editing process. Readers deserve to know whether the work of outsiders meets The Post’s standards.
This column was originally published in the Washington Post on Dec. 3, 2010.