Transparency is the antidote to fake news

“The problem is massive, and these are just first steps. I hope that in the year to come, media outlets and tech platforms alike will take bigger ones.”

In the coming year, we’ll see continuing tension between the public and the press over what’s “real” and what’s not. With the president calling journalists in the mainstream media “a stain on America,” it’s safe to say that the “fake news” conversation will persist — and that attacks on the press will, too. It all means that news organizations will have to keep fighting for the trust of a skeptical public, coming up with ways to demonstrate our credibility across all of the platforms on which we publish our journalism.

At Frontline, we believe that one such way is through journalistic transparency. It’s something we’ve long practiced — but now more than ever, we’ve been cracking open our reporting process and offering new, self-directed opportunities to explore, search, and share what goes into building our journalism. As part of our broader Transparency Project initiative, this fall we launched The Putin Files — which made available 56 full-length interviews from the making of Michael Kirk and his team’s documentary, Putin’s Revenge. We published 32 interviews in video alongside transcripts, and 24 interviews in transcript form only — all fully navigable by person, theme, or highlight.

Our goal was not only to make our source material accessible to audiences, but to make it useful. We developed interactive tools that enable readers and viewers to explore annotated transcripts, compare versions of events, and share quotes via social media.

Poynter’s Jim Warren called this endeavor “an admirable move towards transparency.” And while a video and transcript effort like this is unique, there are different efforts at transparency underway at other news organizations — and we hope more will flourish in the year to come. I’m on a new Knight Commission that’s charged with developing ways to deepen public trust in the press and other democratic institutions. Thinking seriously about transparency will be an important part of the equation.

It’s important to note, though, that the burden (and opportunity) of trust-building doesn’t just fall on news organizations, but also on the platforms where people consume our stories. As Emily Bell said earlier this year, “Fake news has become a meaningless and rather dangerous phrase. But the problem of feeling unsure of what to believe and what not to believe, the obliteration of credible brands and the squeezing of all types of content into the same un-delineated window, is very real.” We’ve seen Facebook make moves towards differentiating between verified and unverified stories. Twitter and Google, too. But the problem is massive, and these are just first steps. I hope that in the year to come, media outlets and tech platforms alike will take bigger ones.

Raney Aronson-Rath is executive producer of the PBS investigative documentary series Frontline.

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