Baking transparency into our routines

“In 2017, let’s tell readers every day: Here’s what we learned, here’s how we confirmed it, and here’s how you can do the same.”

How do you serve a public that doesn’t trust you anymore?

sp-sullivanJournalists across the country are having a crisis of conscience in the aftermath of an election few of us saw coming, amid the endemic of fake news on Facebook and the all-out war the president-elect has been waging against the mainstream media on Twitter.

The best answer I can come up with is we need to show our work.

Now, more than ever, mainstream journalists need to show we traffic in truth, doubling down on data and documents. So much of a reporter’s daily routine is interrogating facts, hunting down primary sources, summarizing our findings and publishing a digest for readers. It’s not enough. It never was.

For decades, we’ve had tools at our disposal to allow readers to dive deeper, to show them how we know what we know, but too often we fail to use them. Now, as we compete for attention with charlatans who repackage outrage, sowing skepticism in the mainstream press, we shouldn’t be lamenting that skepticism. We should be encouraging it.

I’m a criminal justice reporter, and most of my stories are built on a foundation of public records and court documents. Some I get as a matter of routine. Some I fight for in court. Nearly all of them, I publish online.

DocumentCloud, a project run by Investigative Reporters and Editors, is my best friend. I evangelize for it in my newsroom. I use it to upload and organize countless records and share them with my readers, embedding pages and excerpts in my stories. It’s a way of building trust with the audience. I am saying to them: Don’t just take my word for it. Here, look: facts!

There are countless other tools that make showing our work quick and easy. We should use them.

When I worked with a colleague on his story about a man killed by police whose death was attributed to a controversial medical diagnosis, we collaborated with a data reporter to turn hundreds of pages of paper records into first-of-its-kind state database of deaths in police custody.

When I chronicled the plight of two New Jersey men serving life sentences for a crime a wrongful conviction project claims they didn’t commit, I posted all the evidence along with my story, inviting readers to make up their own minds.

When another coworker looked into state bias crime data amid national reports of racial violence after the election, he found the data law enforcement was collecting was garbage. So he told that story, shining a light on the weakness of evidence and explaining why that, itself, was a big story.

To a lot of great reporters, this is old hat. Legacy media like The New York Times and The Washington Post and public interest nonprofits like ProPublica have been publishing primary documents and data along in sidebars and interactives alongside their big investigations for years. Many regional newsrooms have gotten religion on showing our work, too. Yet hardly anybody is making the sharing of primary sources a regular part of their daily journalism.

It seems almost silly to say this stuff in 2016, but as an avid news consumer I know a lot of newsrooms still aren’t even doing the basics: Link to references in your stories, publish primary documents online, invite interrogations into your data, and do everything in your power to demonstrate the shoe leather that went into 650 words of copy. As we enter 2017, we need to find new ways to bake such transparency into our routines.

The rise of the true crime podcast has shown just how interested audiences are in getting a window into the reporting process. Not every newspaper and local public radio station needs to go full Serial, but we should strive every day to not only provide the documents and data to readers, but to teach them how to interpret and interrogate them, how to obtain primary records themselves.

There will always be readers who believe anything put in front of them on a screen, and others who will distrust us no matter how high we stack the evidence. There isn’t One Simple Trick that will bring them all back to reality.

But we ended 2016 looking around at the Great Fake News Epidemic, wondering how the hell we got here. In 2017, let’s tell readers every day: Here’s what we learned, here’s how we confirmed it, and here’s how you can do the same.

S.P. Sullivan is a statehouse reporter for NJ.com and The Star-Ledger.

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