The Washington Post won a Pulitzer for fighting “fake news” with facts
If there were a Pulitzer for journalism ethics, it would go to the Washington Post for radical transparency of its rigorous reporting exposing Senate candidate Roy Moore’s alleged past pursuit of teenage girls and the failed attempt by Project Veritas to entrap the Post into writing about a fake victim.
The Pulitzer Board recognized the Post's work with the 2018 prize for investigative journalism. The series is a master class in shoe-leather reporting - building trust with reluctant sources to go on-the-record with sensitive personal information; meticulous fact-finding using public records, tracking down witnesses, repeated interviews and in-person verification; vetting sources’ backstories to bulletproof the reporting.
But the series was most extraordinary for its transparency, breaking the fourth wall between the newsroom and readers by revealing those techniques to readers - showing how reporters got the story. Pulling back the curtain on the journalistic process served not only to reassure the public about the Post’s motives, methods and findings, but also to inoculate the paper against false claims that the women were paid off by Moore’s opponents or the Post, or that the stories were leaked by opposition researchers. Not every tip panned out, and editors were transparent about that too.
“There were definitely leads we followed that we never got to a comfort level on. In a story like this, you come across dozens of leads and you have to vet every one of them” and not all were fit to print, Steven Ginsberg, the Post’s national editor, told me. “We obviously try to make every story as airtight as possible. With these particular stories, we were cognizant that these stories and these women would be attacked.”
He was right. The blowback began with Moore and his allies echoing President Trump’s attacks on the Post as “fake news,” and advanced to robocalls to Alabama residents from a nonexistent Post reporter named “Bernie Bernstein” offering $5,000 to $7,000 to any woman who would come forward with dirt on Moore. Efforts to discredit the Post culminated in a sting operation by right-wing activist James O’Keefe, who tried but failed to entrap the Post into reporting on a fake victim; instead, the Post videotaped its lead reporter on the Moore story exposing the Project Veritas operative as a liar and a plant.
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“People spent weeks trying to discredit our work, to question our motives. We sought to address this from the start - to say in the first story that we went to Alabama for one story and got another,” Ginsberg said. The Post also exposed in its first story three divorces and a messy financial history of one of Moore’s accusers. “The goal was to make clear that we had done all of our due diligence, that we had looked into [the accusers’] credibility, more so than anyone else had. You want to get ahead of that for anyone who may attack them, you don’t want that to come out later - we were very up front with all the women,” Ginsberg said.
“Even with all the transparency we put in there, I wish we had done more,” Ginsberg said.
The dominant tradition in American journalism, at least in the last half-century, is to never make the story about you, but to “just do the reporting and get out of the way,” as Ginsberg said. Yet in today’s polarized political and media climate, in which Donald Trump has cannily sought to discredit any negative reporting by deeming it “fake news,” Post editors knew they would be assailed for publishing unflattering stories about a Trump-backed candidate - and that it was essential to the stories’ credibility to show how the reporting was done.
An unexpected upside of the president’s destructive attacks on the media has been to encourage the fact-based press to up its game - to be even more rigorous in our reporting and to show our work, rather than to assume we will be trusted. As Ginsberg notes, it’s common now - not just in investigative reports, but also in daily political coverage in the Post - to credit information to “18 White House officials” (or however many spoke to the reporters) and to explain how reporters vetted the information.
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I’m an evangelist for transparency in journalism - for us to explain in stories how the sausage is made. That's the best way to correct deep misunderstanding among the public about what journalists do and what we don’t do, confusion that fuels distrust in our profession and in the accuracy of the content we deliver. Distrust in journalism has reached crisis levels; 44 percent of Americans said they believe the press fabricates stories about President Trump, while only 19 percent of Republicans expressed a great deal of trust in the press, the 2017 Poynter Media Trust Survey found. The first step out of that morass in confidence is to explain to our audience our journalistic purpose, methods, and standards.
The days of “show, don’t tell” journalism are over; our mantra now must be “show - and tell.” Rather than acting as if we are the all-knowing authorities speaking on high, we must make the case everyday for why our audience should trust us.
From the very first installment in what became a series of articles and videos on Moore and Project Veritas, the Post had its sources named and on the record, and explained how the story came about: “Neither Corfman nor any of the other women sought out The Post. While reporting a story in Alabama about supporters of Moore’s Senate campaign, a Post reporter heard that Moore allegedly had sought relationships with teenage girls. Over the ensuing three weeks, two Post reporters contacted and interviewed the four women. All were initially reluctant to speak publicly but chose to do so after multiple interviews, saying they thought it was important for people to know about their interactions with Moore. The women say they don’t know one another.”
Lead reporter Stephanie McCrummen described in a Post video entitled “How to be a Reporter” that she is an Alabama native who went to the state to report on Moore’s supporters. She heard stories that when Moore was an assistant district attorney, he tried to date teenage girls. McCrummen said she was skeptical, “as journalists are.” Before printing anything, she had to find alleged victims and witnesses, vet the information and make sure sources didn’t have axes to grind. McCrummen and Beth Reinhard said they verified every detail possible, down to driving the route from the corner where one accuser said Moore picked her up to the home where he lived to verify if it was a 30-minute ride and if a road was unpaved.
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“We did very little phone reporting. We felt it was better to do it in person so they could see us and we could see them,” McCrummen said. Her only agenda was “to figure out what the reality is, what the truth is - that’s it.”
Truth is our shared agenda in journalism. The Post has given us an object lesson in rigorous reporting to seek out the truth - and showing our audience why they can be confident in our content.