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In this accountants-age of journalism, in which stories are to be rubbed clean of edge and energy and interest, and certified as error-free by the Board of Journalism Standards and Appeals, I suppose I should just ignore the silly whack your paper took at a colleague last week (Dept. of Media, “Taking Names,” 6/6). But it was so filled with misapprehensions about the nature of our business that it seemed worth a response, especially at a time when a few wayward—or worse—reporters are being used to besmirch the rest.

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Your paper takes Blaine Harden, a national correspondent, to task for not completely crediting several regional newspapers in a story he wrote last week on Tacoma, Wash. (He did credit, as you note, one of the papers in his original piece.) OK, I’d imagine Harden—who is one of the finest and most energetic correspondents at this paper—wouldn’t disagree; he helped author the correction.

But then you go further, framing this narrative as “hot-shot reporters from national dailies” who read the local papers, retrace the steps of local reporters, and write their take, borrowing thoughts and quotes. That’s absurd, and it reflects an ignorance of how we do our jobs. We indeed start with a “clip” job, in that we pull in everything that’s been written. And, here and there, we’ll take down names of people who seem worth interviewing. And often we’ll pack a book or two on the region, and keep a call list of academics and writers who know local history and culture.

That’s called good preparation for good reporting. Then we travel to the scene and work as fast and expansively as we possibly can. In no way, shape, or form are we interested in retracing anyone’s steps, and, because we’re often working against no less energetic reporters from other national papers—not to mention knowledgeable local reporters—the competition to come up with a new and interesting take is considerable and salutary.

In Harden’s case, he draws on a considerable knowledge of his native Northwest and supplements it with rigorous reporting. Unlike, say, Rick Bragg (formerly of the New York Times), he jumped in a car on deadline and drove to Tacoma precisely because he didn’t want to mail in a story or confabulate on the basis of his knowledge of the region. This wasn’t dateline collection, as your piece suggests. Harden pushed himself to get to a scene in hopes of finding the unexpected. That’s the mark of a fine reporter.

The news business is inherently messy—which isn’t to excuse outright fabrication, lies, or deception. We all make errors sometimes, and we need to correct them. But at a time of economic downturn, joblessness, “missing” weapons of mass destruction, and the detention and roundup of tens of thousands of law-abiding immigrants, I’m far more worried that our newspapers will lose their jagged edge than that we will satisfy a green-visor brigade of critics.

New York Bureau Chief

Washington Post