New Post guidelines address "Salons" scandal lapses
Guidelines issued today for newsroom participation in sponsored events appear to address the ethical lapses that damaged The Post’s reputation last year after it solicited underwriters for off-the-record “salon” dinners at the publisher’s home.
The guidelines require that Post-organized events be on-the-record. And “as a general rule, the newsroom will only participate in Post conferences or events when there are multiple sponsors.” The Post’s top editor may grant exceptions for single-sponsored events. But “even where there are multiple outside sponsors,” the guidelines say, “care should be taken to ensure that no appearance of impropriety is created.”
“Post conferences or other live events must not compromise our journalism nor create an appearance that our journalism has been compromised,” the guidelines say.
They were released shortly after a note was sent to the newsroom by Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, who said they “are important to upholding our journalistic independence and credibility.” He tapped one of The Post’s two managing editors, Raju Narisetti, to oversee compliance.
The new rules grew out of the “salons” sponsorship scandal six months ago. As a way to generate revenue for the money-losing Post, there had been plans for up to 11 intimate dinners at the Northwest Washington residence of Publisher Katharine Weymouth. For a fee of up to $25,000, sponsors would have been able to dine in an off-the-record setting with Weymouth, Brauchli and at least one Post reporter. The dinner also would have included a small group of lawmakers, administration officials, business leaders, association heads and think tank experts.
Before the first dinner could be held, the plan turned into a public relations nightmare when Politico.com disclosed details of a Post flier soliciting sponsors. A firestorm ensured, forcing Weymouth and Brauchli to apologize. In the journalism industry and within The Post’s newsroom, the plan for “off-the-record” dinners was especially troubling. Under The Post’s definition, information obtained off-the-record “cannot be used, either in the paper or in further reporting.” In a July 12 column, I wrote about the ethical lapses.
Following the “salons” debacle, Post Senior Editor Milton Coleman was assigned to work with Post Vice President and Counsel Eric Lieberman to come up with new rules to ensure ethical participation in Post-sponsored and other events.
Coleman consulted with a number of major news organizations, reviewing their ethics policies. The guidelines issued today, he said, were the product of those talks “and a lot of conversations with Eric Lieberman and with top editors at the newspaper.” He and Lieberman wrote the guidelines, joking that they were edited by “a cast of thousands.”
Coinciding with the release of the guidelines, Post executive Jenny Abramson was named to replace Charles Pelton, who had been instrumental in pushing the “salons” idea as a newly named head of a unit to produce revenue through Post-sponsored conferences and events. Pelton, who subsequently resigned, this week wrote about how journalists can help generate revenue for their organizations. Abramson will become general manager for the unit, reporting to Advertising Vice President Kenneth Babby.
In naming Abramson, The Post signaled that it wants to resume development of a conferences and events business. The guidelines make clear that The Post thinks they can ethically exist with newsroom participation.
“The Washington Post believes conferences and other live events on topics of interest to our audience are a worthwhile extension of our journalism,” the guidelines begin. “They are intended to generate revenue as well.”
The guidelines go beyond Post-sponsored events to include rules for participation on outside panels.
Here’s the full text of the guidelines:
GUIDELINES FOR NEWSROOM INVOLVEMENT IN LIVE EVENTS
The Washington Post believes conferences and other live events on topics of interest to our audience are a worthwhile extension of our journalism. They are intended to generate revenue as well.
Washington Post journalists also participate occasionally in events organized by third parties, such as panel discussions in which they serve as moderators or panelists. These sorts of events can provide important opportunities to maintain and extend our reputation, and to develop sources and other useful information to further our reporting.
These guidelines are intended to ensure that newsroom participation in both types of events does not compromise – either in fact or appearance – the fairness, independence and integrity of our journalism. Part I articulates standards of demeanor and impartiality that our journalists should follow when participating in any live event, regardless of the organizer. Part II applies to events organized and/or sponsored by The Washington Post itself (either with or without additional sponsorship by outside parties). Part III covers participation by Washington Post journalists in events organized by third parties.
NOTE: For the avoidance of doubt, these guidelines apply only to events in which Washington Post journalists participate. They do not apply to events sponsored by our Advertising or Marketing departments in which Post journalists do not participate except as invited members of the public (e.g., social events held by TastePost or PostPoints). Nor do these guidelines apply to events that take place at The Washington Post building where the sponsor has rented our space and The Post has no other involvement in the event.
Part I: Standards for Participation by Post Journalists in Live Appearances of Any Kind
Washington Post journalists are always Washington Post journalists, no matter what the venue. The reputations and knowledge of our journalists are well-respected and valuable, both to The Post and to the individuals who have developed them. We must never abandon the standards that govern separation of news from opinion, the importance of fact and objectivity, the appropriate use of language and tone, and other hallmarks of our brand of journalism. Being in a live situation where we may be talking rather than reporting, writing, taking pictures or crafting images does not alter our core journalistic principles. Except for opinion columnists, Post journalists should avoid making statements that could call into question their objectivity. Post journalists should be civil, courteous, and professional in their remarks during live appearances, both in front of the audience and in less formal interactions.
Part II: Newsroom Participation in Live Journalism Events Organized or Sponsored By The Washington Post
Post conferences or other live events must not compromise our journalism nor create an appearance that our journalism has been compromised.
As a general rule, the newsroom will only participate in Post conferences or events when there are multiple sponsors. Post newsroom participation in single-sponsored events can create the appearance that we are trying to further that sponsor’s individual interest, especially if that sponsor has a direct financial or political interest in the topic. Newsroom employees will participate in a single-sponsored Post conference or event only with the specific approval of the Executive Editor. Even where there are multiple outside sponsors, care should be taken to ensure that no appearance of impropriety is created.
Post-organized conferences or other similar live events where Post journalists participate must be on the record. Sponsors will not determine the content or structure of a conference or other live event. Newsroom participation is subject to the Executive Editor or his designee’s review of the content and structure of the program.
Sponsors of events at which Post journalists appear should understand that Post editors independently determine the news value, if any, of the event, as well as any news coverage of the event sponsors.
Post reporters can be consulted on persons who might be invited to a sponsored conference or event, but should not extend invitations for persons to take part in such events.
Part III: Newsroom Participation in Events Organized by Others
Post journalists frequently are invited to moderate or be a part of discussions organized by others and need not be reluctant to accept such invitations. In doing so, a journalist should obtain prior approval from his or her department head. The department head should understand the conditions that apply to the journalist’s participation in the event.
We adhere strongly to the principle that we pay our own way. We do not accept payment—either honoraria or expenses—from governments, government-funded organizations, groups of government officials, political groups or organizations that take positions on controversial issues. A Post journalist also cannot accept payment to appear at an event from any person, company or organization that he or she covers. And we discourage accepting payment from individuals, companies, trade associations or organizations that lobby government or otherwise try to influence issues the newspaper covers. Broadcast organizations, educational institutions, social organizations and many professional organizations—including many journalism organizations—usually fall outside this restriction unless the journalist is involved in coverage of them.
When seeking approval to accept an invitation, Post journalists should disclose to their department heads whether they will receive any payment– either honoraria or expenses – for appearing at the event. Post journalists must also disclose to their department heads their participation in any non-Post speakers’ bureau.
We generally favor on-the-record events that include some type of public element. Yet there will be times when Post journalists may be asked to moderate, observe or be a part of semi-public events where information is shared on a background basis. In such settings, it may be advisable not only to have prior approval from an editor, but also not to agree to conditions that would prevent the journalist from using the information discussed in subsequent reporting.
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