Sunday, December 5, 2010

Andy Alexander's Wake-Up Call

Nonprofit news organizations got yet another wake-up call Sunday morning from Washington Post Ombudsman Andy Alexander.

In his regular column today about an environmental story produced by the Center for Public Integrity, he took Post editors to task for publishing the story without telling readers what CPI is and why the Post is publishing its work.

More than a dozen readers simply hadn't heard of CPI, Alexander wrote. But one reader he cited by name -- Douglas H. Green of Washington, D.C. -- took issue with CPI. Green said CPI "often gives a biased, anti-business view on environmental topics," according to Alexander.

What's troubling here is that although CPI has a 20-year track record of excellence, and although Alexander's own investigation found that the story had been thoroughly vetted by Post editors, the Post's failure to explain itself and CPI to readers opens it to accusations of bias from readers who have their own interests to protect.

As we learn from Alexander's column, Green is a lawyer who represents electric utilities on environmental issues. As it so happens, the story, entitled "Obama administration gives billions in stimulus money without environmental safeguards," names electric utilities that got stimulus money for job-creating projects while also being granted "exemptions from a basic form of environmental oversight."

Are these companies among Green's clients? Quite possibly. It might be that Green has some skin in the game and in fact is the party that harbors a biased view of the issue. We don't know because that information isn't disclosed, either.

But we do know that accusations of bias -- whether because of funder pressures or reporters' own political views -- remains one of the great, nagging criticisms of nonprofit news organizations. To protect themselves, and indeed, to remain viable news providers for the long haul, they and their publishing partners among legacy media need to do a better job of explaining how the model works and why it benefits readers.

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