An inconvenient print layout

Boing Boing has linked a post talking about an article by Laurie David about a recent rejection by the NTSA of 50,000 free copies of the movie “An Inconvenient Truth” for schools. Both the Boing Boing and the Conscious Earth postings are up-front about the fact that the author is a producer of the movie, though Conscious Earth does somewhat misleadingly say The news was buried deep in the Washington Post website and reported by Laurie David.

Misleading because in fact it’s not news, at least not in the sense that it was reported by a journalist in a researched article. The problem is, you wouldn’t necessarily know that if you follow the link as it was provided by the Conscious Earth posting. The extent of the clue to where that article appeared is one line: “Sunday, November 26, 2006; B01” If you happen to know that section B is the Opinion pages on a Sunday, vs the rest of the week when it’s the Metro pages. The page in normal context is marginally better, but still not great: in a font smaller than the column text itself you can see the “breadcrumb” that indicates this is under Opinion: > Opinions > Outlook

Compare that to the New York Times print view of an op-ed by a contributing writer (annoying registration or required) which clearly states “Op-ed” at the top. Their standard view also has another up on the Post: since they’re not forcing the reader to click a second time to get the second half of the article there’s no possibility someone will read to the bottom of the page and still not see the paragraph indicating the author’s identity. Since WaPo wants you to click again (for more advertising pageviews) you might give up halfway and not see the author’s affiliations that reveal his or her allegiances.

For the record, I don’t think Conscious Earth is being deliberate in this – the fault here is very clearly with WaPo, who hasn’t put enough effort into differentiating their online articles. I’m sympathetic to the challenge, but this is one they need to rise to toot-sweet. Having partisan articles – no matter how much I might be inclined to agree with the conclusions therein – that look just like reportage is something that diminishes their credibility.

4 Comments so far

  1. kb (unregistered) on November 27th, 2006 @ 8:02 pm

    Interesting take. Though you may have a somewhat valid point on the citing of the print, you largely miss the point. Defining ‘news’ as what is ‘reported by journalists’ vs. what actaully is occuring in the world is a pretty skewed view of the world. Especially given the well known coporate biases of major media. The fact that the same biases are appearing unreported in the education system should be a concern for all free thinking Americans

  2. Don (unregistered) on November 27th, 2006 @ 8:30 pm

    I’m well aware that I have to consider everyone’s Corporate Masters when I consume media, and I do. However the Washington Post endeavors to separate out the clear axe-grinding in their opinion pages from what is reportage from their staff done under some due diligence and with an effort to present opposing viewpoints.

    That’s not something I am contending they should do, it’s something they desire to do and make an effort to do. The very same links above, both formatted for print and in normal web view, have advertisements in them. They’re pretty clearly advertisements; the two rotating ads I just checked are for Fidelity Mutual funds and then Citgo gas stations. They’re pretty, in color, have some animation and use wording like “we,” and I am pretty sure WaPo isn’t Citgo. And yet, they took the time to style the page so that the little block says ADVERTISEMENT over it so it’s very clear this isn’t WaPo’s contention that Citgo Is An American Family.

    But this op-ed, which doesn’t use the pronoun “I” once and only uses “we” twice and only in the last four paragraphs, has no such OP-ED header. A naive reader could very easily digest most of it and not be clear that this is written from a soapbox, not reportage. That’s not the writer’s fault – she’s writing to promote a position and this is the tone she should use to accomplish that.

    What I consider noteworthy is that the Post is failing in their online endeavors to accomplish something they do pretty well in print: indicate clearly when something is the work of reporting – however flawed and limited that may or may not be – and when it’s editorializing. Keeping those two things as separate as you can manage is a big deal to the media and it’s noteworthy when they fail.

  3. Don (unregistered) on November 27th, 2006 @ 8:39 pm

    Oh, one more thing: I am not missing the point, I am just not writing here about the issue of this attempted donation, NTSA, or climate change. My point in this post was what I see as a flaw in my local paper’s online presentation. It’s a problem in any of their op-ed pieces, but I point it out in this one because its style clearly demonstrates the problem.

    Looking back on last week’s postings you’ll find articles on the history of the AK-47 and one on insensitive comments. The first doesn’t take a political position and the second clearly and repeatedly uses the first person pronoun, thereby demonstrating that it’s not reporting. However I’m sure you’ll find older examples if you choose to look; I merely was using one that’s a big issue, linked from a top-20 website and that happened to be the example that brought the issue of attribution and identification to my attention.

    As it happens, I think this is an event that deserves proper reporting in a space beyond the op-eds. But agreeing with the conclusion doesn’t mean I think it should be passed off as reportage.

  4. Doug (unregistered) on November 28th, 2006 @ 12:57 am

    Off topic, but I feel like chiming in here…the most annoying thing about the Post website is the auto-refresh. If I happen to leave a tab open on the home page it keeps hammering my browser (and the CPU) with new HTTP requests. If anyone knows how to disable this behavior, I’m all ears.

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