April 3, 2011

It’s All About Transparency Now

During our recent WikiLeaks panel at MSU, I made a comparison between the transparency of WikiLeaks and The New York Times. I said that WikiLeaks does a better job of explaining its reportorial and editorial processes. I believe that to be true largely because the Times makes it difficult to find information about how its journalists report and present the news.

This morning, Arthur S. Brisbane, the Times’ public editor, makes a good argument for transparency and suggests the Times do the hard work of creating a searchable record of its policies — especially now that the Times is creating a converged, interactive, multimedia news product. Brisbane concludes:

The Times has a good set of policies. It should double down on its commitment to high standards by organizing them into a reader-friendly format and then trust its audience — which is now a paying audience both online and in print — to readily access these important principles and rules. Will some abuse the privilege? Inevitably so. But elevating the dialogue with committed readers is worth the price to be paid.

On the local level, the panel discussion prompted News-Leader editor David Stoeffler (he was on the panel) to write about transparency in his column this morning. He used a large number of his column inches to begin explaining the process. I hope this leads to a public discussion and, finally, a list of policies published on the News-Leader site.

As mentioned on Rhetorica on Friday, I gave a talk to college journalists this week about blogging as journalists. And I received some of the usual questions about the dangers of opinion and of appearing biased, i.e. appearing to have a point of view when the audience expects objectivity.

No. The audience does not expect the impossible. What citizens expect is exactly what Stoeffler wrote about this morning:

We often have information — legally — we choose not to publish, or that we publish in ways that protect the innocent. It might be as simple as withholding the name of a crime victim, or perhaps the identity of an undercover law enforcement officer.

The first step, though, involves simply getting the information regardless of sensitivity: Good journalists want to know things; sometimes things that others would rather we not know.

Once we have it, we need to verify its authenticity and accuracy, plus gather other information to put it in the right context.

Sometimes, the source of information has an ax to grind — a reason to want someone else to look bad. It doesn’t mean the information is less authentic, but we need to understand the motivation of the source and keep the appropriate distance so we don’t get caught up in their agenda.

After verifying and putting things in context, we write our stories and then we’re ready to publish. We make sure we know the legal ramifications, but often times it is the ethical considerations that take precedence.

We earn your trust through careful, truthful reporting, and by our honesty and integrity. We know sometimes we fall short of your expectations.

This is a general description of the objective process of reporting (in the context of sensitive information). Objectivity is dead; it was never really alive. Or, rather, it was badly misunderstood as stance instead of process.

Public policies are important. I understand the trepidation of the Times’ editors as explained by Brisbane. But I reject it as old MSM thinking. News organizations ought to want citizens to hold them to account for their stated standards. News organizations ought to want this because it brings citizens into the process. Transparency engages citizens. And transparency fulfills the primary purpose of journalism: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

Liberation for everyone!

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