Transparency finally takes off

“Having been called ‘enemies of the people’ by our highest-ranking public official, reporters are starting to recognize the importance of not just a knee-jerk defense of their work, but one that shows exactly how they work to uncover wrongdoing and check facts.”

Sometimes, working in journalism education and research can feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day: Every time you think you’ve moved on to an exciting new prediction about the future of news, you realize you’re right back to where you started 15 years ago.

Thought you finally crushed the “double down on print, forget the Internet, kill the blogs!” era of journalism? Nope, it reared its mighty head again in late 2016.

Thought you had made headway way back in, say, 2002, arguing that news organizations need to be more transparent about their work in order to garner audience trust? Nope, this is still something that needs to be declared and rediscovered again in the era of Trump.

It’s been a rough year for journalism and democracy, so in the spirit of hope and better things to come, I’m going to tentatively predict that 2018 is the year transparency finally takes hold as an established practice in news organizations. Wishful thinking? Maybe, but I hope not.

Transparency is not a new thing

Transparency’s roots in American journalism run back to the 1920s, when the press was turning to objectivity as a guiding principle, according to The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. But instead of the intellectually-bereft, oft-trumpeted version of objectivity that argues that journalists can and should operate free of any bias, this early conception of objectivity had transparency at its core. The idea was that journalists should develop a consistent approach to verifying information and present that process in a way that people could understand it and make up their own minds what to think. The scientific method on a tighter deadline, if you will.

Kovach and Rosenstiel’s book was first published in 2001, and among other things, it made the case for transparency being an important way that journalists can build credibility. Elements drew on interviews, surveys, and forums with hundreds of journalists, and therefore distilled the core values of many practitioners. It it is still taught in journalism schools around the country, and from 2002 to 2005, I worked with Kovach, Rosentiel, and other leaders in the field to discuss these principles with newsrooms all over the country to figure out how we could best ensure that our daily work was actually living up to these values.

Our workshop modules on bias and verification and transparency were by far our most popular. The media landscape was already increasingly cluttered, even pre-Facebook, and the power of journalists to act as gatekeepers — preventing false information from getting out to the public — was waning. Most newsrooms came to the conclusion during our discussions that it was best to explain to readers not only what they knew, but also what they didn’t know about a given story, and how they had vetted a piece. To not only dig up new facts, but to also serve as a kind of trusted referee of information already out in the public domain, making the value reporters offer more obvious to the audience.

Academics like my friend Doreen Marchionni, now an editor at The Seattle Times, began to do experiments and build evidence that showed that transparency efforts (like explicitly showing how crowdsourcing efforts had contributed to a story) increased credibility, as did reporters that “put themselves out there” as more human, personable, and relatable. It’s not necessarily about disclosing who you voted for or your views on hot button issues, but rather helping people understand who you are and how you go about your daily work.

But change is hard, and even though our workshops on verification and transparency were rated as highly successful by participants, it’s hard to practice what you preach in the hurly burly of a busy newsroom. Also, some journalists have long responded to criticism by digging into assertions of pure objectivity, what sociologist Gaye Tuchman calls a “strategic ritual” that protects journalists from charges of bias. Transparency made inroads, but relatively few organizations or individual journalists made significant progress.

Fast forward to 2018

In February, I was at a conference in D.C. about how journalists could regain trust with the public after the polarizing election of 2016 and the constant attacks on the press by the president of the United States. I found myself in the same small-group discussion as Rosenstiel, my former boss, and what we were arguing for was — more or less word for word — the same things we’d said in workshops more than a decade ago. Groundhog Day once again!

Not everyone there bought what we were selling at that conference, but as the year went on, I started to hear more and more calls for transparency. And I was especially pleased to read that transparency was a key theme at the recent Poynter Ethics Summit. Even one of our most well-known journalistic leaders, Washington Post editor Marty Baron noted at the conference: “I think there’s mystery about how we go about our work. Let’s just be more transparent about how we pursued the story.”

With more high-profile news organizations like the Post increasingly embracing transparency, I optimistically predict that after its many stops and starts, it has finally hit its moment, in a country that has never needed great reporting more than it does now. When I tweeted last weekend about how the Post “launched a new series aimed at deconstructing the journalism process while answering questions about how reporting works,” it got a ton more engagement than is the norm. Long-languishing trust in media is finally ticking up, although Republicans continue to express far more negativity toward mainstream media than Democrats.

Having been called “enemies of the people” by our highest-ranking public official, reporters are starting to recognize the importance of not just a knee-jerk defense of their work, but one that shows exactly how they work to uncover wrongdoing and check facts.

Cheers to a better 2018.

Carrie Brown-Smith is director of the social journalism program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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