National Press Club

Acting Responsibly, as The Washington Post did

Myron Belkind | June 22, 2014

Ever since I began teaching journalism as an adjunct in 1987 in London, I have put three large letters – RAF – on the white boards in the classrooms so that the students see them as they walk in for the first time.

I explained to my first students in London that no, those letters do not stand for the Royal Air Force, but rather they represent what I consider the three tenets of journalism: Responsibility, Accuracy and Fairness.

Accuracy is easy to define, but responsibility and fairness often need examples. I equate fairness to reporting all sides of a controversy, and that also is easy to explain.

Responsibility, however, is a concept that does need specific examples, and I believe The Washington Post demonstrated this week that despite the competitive nature of journalism, with deadline pressures around the clock, a newspaper can act responsibly even if it means delaying a big scoop by a day.

That is what The Washington Post did this week, when it was the first to report on Tuesday the capture on Sunday of Ahmed Abu Khattala, one of the suspected leaders of the September 2012 attack in Benghazi that killed four Americans.

In the story bylined Karen DeYoung, Adam Goldman and Julie Tate, there was this one sentence:

"The Washington Post learned about the capture Monday but agreed to a request from the White House to delay publication of a story because of security concerns."

Many readers may have missed that sentence, but it demonstrates clearly that newspapers do act responsibly on sensitive matters, contrary to those who feel that the press acts irresponsibly when rushing to print or to getting news out in social media.

In taking such steps, as The Washington Post did, reporters and editors are not ceding to the government any power over what is published. Rather, they are using their own discretion – and making their own decisions – as to what should be published and when.

John Donnelly, the chair of the National Press Club's Freedom of the Press Committee, joins me to say:

"Hats off to The Washington Post and to all the other newspapers and media outlets that practice the same principle. The Post broke a major story – and did it in the right way."