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Advice for publishing sensitive stories: Tell readers why

By Andy Alexander

As Sunday’s column noted, many readers took issue with The Post’s decision last week to disclose the identities of companies doing classified intelligence work under government contract. Scores complained when word spread through government agencies about the imminent publication of “Top Secret America,” which tracked the huge national security build-up since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But when the three-part series began last Monday, what had been a flood of complaints became only a trickle.

I suspect that had something to do with an explanatory editor’s note that accompanied “Top Secret America.” It described how The Post used public records -- not leaked classified documents -- to create a massive database that readers could access. And it explained that government intelligence organizations been invited to view the database prior to publication in order to express concerns.

Similarly, my guess is that The New York Times received fewer than expected reader complaints over today’s package of stories based on some 92,000 classified reports detailing struggles in the war in Afghanistan. That’s because The Times offered readers a lengthy explanation of how it vetted the documents, which had been provided by a group called Wikileaks. Online, it also had top editors answering reader questions about the decision to publish.

Explanatory devices such as these invariably mute criticism from a public that increasingly views media organizations as unconcerned about their customers or indifferent to the harm that can come from disclosing sensitive information. Readers may not always agree with news decisions, but they appreciate learning that editors and reporters were cautious and actually gave serious thought before publishing.

I’m surprised these editor’s notes aren’t used routinely. When a newspaper or its Web site carries graphic photo images from a war or a disaster, such as those The Post ran after the Haiti earthquake, reader outrage can be tempered by a short note explaining the rationale. The same is true when publishing leaked secret documents.

The lessons: Transparency enhances credibility. And it's best to offer the rationale on the front end. An explanation that runs after sensitive content has been published typically comes off as defensive and a reaction to public criticism.

Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said there had been discussions about whether to explain the methodology behind “Top Secret America” in the text of the series, or as a separate editor’s note. The separate note, more visible to readers, was the smart way to go.

I also thought the note wisely explained steps The Post had taken on its own to address public safety concerns involving buildings identified on the Web site that was created for the interactive database. “For instance,” the note said, “we used the addresses of company headquarters buildings, information which, in most cases, is available on companies’ own Web sites, but we limited the degree to which readers can use the zoom function on maps to pinpoint those or other locations.”

In today’s explanation to readers, The Times dispels any notion that it simply published unverified records from Wikileaks. Rather, it said, “The Times spent about a month mining the data for disclosures and patterns, verifying and cross-checking with other information sources.”

“To establish confidence in the information,” it continued, “The Times checked a number of reports against incidents that had been publicly reported or witnessed by our own journalists. Government officials did not dispute that the information was authentic.”

“Deciding whether to publish secret information is always difficult, and after weighing the risks and public interest, we sometimes chose not to publish,” The Times said.

Wikileaks provided the same records to Britain’s Guardian newspaper, as well as the German magazine Der Spiegel. But The Times told its readers that the three “agreed at the outset that we would not disclose -- either in our articles or any of our online supplementary material -- anything that was likely to put lives at risk or jeopardize military or antiterrorist operations. We have, for example, withheld any names of operates in the field and informants cited in the reports.”

On sensitive national security stories, major news organizations such as The Post routinely engage in a pre-publication discussion about what should -- or shouldn’t -- be disclosed.

“Whenever we think our reporting may implicate national security or public safety, we seek input from the government or other institutions that may be affected so we can make sound judgments,” Brauchli told me last week.

His predecessor, Leonard Downie, Jr., told me last year that these types of pre-publication discussions were rarely “melodramatic” during his long tenure as Post executive editor. But, he said, The Post always took them “very seriously.”

By Andy Alexander  | July 26, 2010; 5:29 PM ET
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Leonard Downie, Jr., told me last year that these types of pre-publication discussions were rarely “melodramatic” during his long tenure as Post executive editor. But, he said, The Post always took them “very seriously.”


That was then. This is now. Things have changed dramatically at the WaPo since Len Downie was in charge.

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | July 27, 2010 12:37 AM | Report abuse

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