Washington Post editor speaks at George Washington U.

Posted 4:48 p.m. Feb. 20

by Patrick W. Higgins
U-WIRE (DC BUREAU)

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – Journalism students were given a lesson in leading a newsroom in times of crisis by Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie in a speech Tuesday night at the George Washington University.

The speech focused on reporting tactics for events like, “the unprecedented terrorist attack” of Sept. 11.

“Newsroom leadership in a large metropolitan newsroom is a lesson in crises management every day,” Downie told the group of approximately 100 GW students.

Recounting the morning of the attacks, Downie, eating breakfast when he received the call that a commercial airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center, outlined a plan that included producing a completely new version of the Post within three hours and deploying a team of journalists and photographers to the attack sites.

“Journalists sneaked past security checkpoints, abandoned cars in the middle of the freeway and climbed high fences to get the story,” Downie recalled.

Aside from dedicating more than 800 reporters, some arts writers with little news experience, to the attacks and their aftermath, editors focused on constantly updating their Web site.

Information including fires on the National Mall and the destruction of American Airlines Flight 93 by U.S. fighter jets, later proved to be false, was nearly posted to the Post’s Web site in the heat of competition with other news organizations. Downie described his method of handling rumors by saying, “Wait and check everything out completely.”

The site did report that the Old Executive Office Building, a historic building situated next to the White House where more than 1,000 peace treaties have been signed caught fire, which was later proved to be a mere rumor.

The Sept. 12 edition sold more than one million copies, 200,000 more than the Post’s usual circulation.

Downie, responding from questions from audience members, re-centered his focus to the relationship of television and print news.

“Much of today’s television news is untrustworthy, misleading, and trivial,” Downie criticized. “These organizations have cynically underestimated or ignored the people’s desire for good journalism.”

Despite his comments, the editor identified a positive aspect to television news saying that visual coverage drives interest in newspaper news, forcing the print media to accommodate the expectations of its habitual readers.

“We can no longer get away with being a dull visual media source,” Downie said.

Switching concentration of the speech to journalistic ethics in times of war, Downie, who has worked in journalism since 1964, stressed an adherence to basic principles in any reporting situation.

“We strive to inform readers and hold accountable those who have power,” Downie explained.

Underlining the debate over patriotism in journalism since Sept. 11, the editor expressed his love and care for the country, but would not wear a flag in his lapel or vote in any election because he felt it was “inappropriate.”

Downie began his career in 1964 as a summer intern with the Post and has held positions ranging from reporter to managing editor, supervising the coverage of the Watergate scandal. He was appointed Executive Editor in 1992.

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