Washington Post Tightens Ethics Rules in Response to Observer Story

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Editors at the Washington Post plan to tighten their ethics policies after an Observer exposé this week revealed a Post reporter had shared story drafts with sources prior to publication.

On Tuesday, we published a story by staff writer Forrest Wilder reporting that the Post’s Daniel de Vise had shared multiple drafts of a March 14 article about standardized testing at colleges with press officers at the University of Texas. “Everything here is negotiatble,” de Vise emailed UT officials. He later added in another email that he’s “never had a dissatisfied customer in this process. And that includes an article a few months ago about a school with one of the nation’s worst graduation rates.”

Journalists traditionally have been taught that double-checking facts and quotes with sources is good practice but sharing whole story drafts is a bad idea. The fear is that giving access to entire drafts will grant sources power to alter the content and tone of the story. Wilder uncovered evidence that de Vise changed the substance and tone of his story at UT officials’ request.

Our story sparked intense debate among national media critics and on journalism blogs over the ethics of draft sharing. (Read reactions from Politico, Poynter, Romenesko, the Post’s Erik Wemple and Gene Weingarten.) The Florida-based Poynter Institute devoted an online discussion to the issue.

The day after our story appeared, Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli responded by emailing Poynter that the paper would be cracking down on draft sharing. On Thursday, the Post made it official. The senior editors sent a memo to staff that began, “Over the last several days, there have been reports raising compelling questions of journalistic ethics in the practices of allowing sources to set rules on the use of quotations and the sharing of story drafts,” according to Poynter.

The editors detailed changes to the Post Stylebook that include, “Some reporters share sections of stories with sources before publication, to ensure accuracy on technical points or to catch errors. A science writer, for instance, may read to a source a passage, or even much of a story, about a complex subject to make sure that it is accurate. But it is against our policy to share drafts of entire stories with outside sources prior to publication, except with the permission–which will be granted extremely rarely–of the Executive Editor or Managing Editor.”

Kudos to Post editors for reacting so quickly. And kudos to Forrest for a terrific piece of accountability journalism

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.