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Aug. 7, 2023, 2:57 p.m.
Reporting & Production

A Norwegian newspaper’s “transparency portal” aims to anticipate and answer reader questions about reporting

Readers “have to see this again and again and again, I think, before you really make an impact.”

When the #MeToo movement exploded into worldwide headlines in 2017 and 2018, Trond Giske was one of the most prominent Norwegians to fall from grace. Giske, a longtime Labour Party leader and Norwegian member of Parliament, resigned from his party leadership positions in early 2018 after facing several allegations of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior (he apologized for some, and denied others).

But Giske didn’t fade from politics completely. The following year, one of Norway’s leading newspapers, Verdens Gang (VG, owned by Schibsted Media Group), reported that Giske, who had recently been nominated to a new leadership position, had been recorded in a six-second video dancing intimately with a young woman in the Bar Vulkan nightclub in Oslo. A VG journalist interviewed the woman in the video and quoted her as saying, “We danced and had a good time, then it became a bit much, so my friend and I left.”

But the woman quickly disputed this quote and its framing in interviews with other publications. She asserted that her dance with Giske hadn’t been a case of unwanted contact. Later, she took the the major step of making a formal complaint to Norway’s Press Complaints Commission (PFU), saying VG had manipulated her quote and engaged in unethical reporting practices to create another #MeToo story.

The story became a full-blown journalism scandal. VG edited the original story, apologized for its reporting, and published an evaluation of that reporting, concluding it should have apologized and amended the article more quickly. (Schibsted also issued a press release about the evaluation’s findings.) Following the woman’s formal complaint, the PFU issued a lengthy critique of VG’s press practices in the story, and included criticism of the publication’s self-evaluation process and report for not giving the woman sufficient information about her rights. VG hadn’t met its obligation to accurately convey the meaning of sources’ quotes, the PFU said, and hadn’t acted considerately in the journalistic process involving a private citizen inexperienced with media, among other errors. The blowback to this story, and PFU’s report, amounted to a devastating blow to VG’s credibility.

Prior to the scandal, VG leadership was already discussing steps it could take to increase transparency and improve audience trust. But the botched story galvanized the newsroom to examine its standards and ways of operating, development editor Øyvind Brenne told me in an interview.

First, the newspaper began publishing all corrections in a single log — the beginning of a “wave” of changes to increase transparency with readers, Brenne said. VG leaders next developed a centralized list of the paper’s part-time, non-journalist video contributors, their commercial ties and potential conflicts of interest, and a clear set of internal rules for all VG staff.

Most recently, last fall, Brenne said VG took its new trust initiatives “to the next level” by creating a “transparency portal.” A website and article embeds explain the “internal considerations” of the reporting process to readers, elaborating on topics like why a criminal was named or why an anonymous source was used. The transparency portal includes a list of FAQs about reporting, a blog-like feed of story-specific editorial assessments, a log of PFU code of ethics complaints involving VG, and a clearer system for organizing VG press releases. It’s a useful example for any publication looking to more comprehensively and systemically explain its reporting process and decisions to its readers.

VG developed criteria for the types of content it thought warranted extra explanations to readers. Those types of content include:

  • Use of anonymous sources
  • Identification or anonymization in criminal cases
  • Stories that mention suicide
  • The publication of secret documents or information
  • Changes to editorial policy, such as the spelling of Kyiv
  • Stories about other newspapers, former employees, VG itself, or Schibsted.

Brenne estimates that VG publishes about two editorial assessments per week. He wants to increase that number, and believes it’s important to explain editorial decisions and thinking even in smaller stories. “We’re quite good at doing it on the biggest stories, where we’re working a lot and using a lot of time,” he said, “but often we forget to do it when it’s a little bit more low-key.” And members of the public “have to see this again and again and again, I think, before you really make an impact.”

One standalone page of the portal includes answers to frequently asked questions about general reporting topics, like whether VG publishes everything it knows about a story, how it separates editorial and business content, and why its stories are sometimes published in other publications. Another page lists all editorial assessments for specific stories. But for Brenne, it’s most important to embed these assessments directly into the original stories for ease of reader access. Editorial developers and web designers collaborated so that information entered in the portal could be quickly and easily pulled into relevant articles by reporters.

Editors are typically responsible for writing applicable transparency portal inserts for stories. VG doesn’t rush to publish these editorial assessments with the same urgency of breaking news, Brenne noted — they aim to post the inserts as soon as possible, but “use the time we need to write these posts…[whether it’s] two minutes later, or three hours later, or even a week later.” Some reporters had worried that adding the editorial assessments could interfere with breaking news, so VG opted to publish the assessments on their own timeline to avoid either slowing down reporting or rushing complex explanations for reporting choices, Brenne said.

Since launching last fall, the portal has been nominated and recognized with multiple European news awards. A YouGov poll found that readers between the ages of 15 and 24 had increased their trust in VG in the last months of 2022 following the launch of the transparency poll. What’s more, the initiative has received mostly positive reader feedback, Brenne said, and appears to have contributed to a decline in the number of reader questions on some topics. He’s also noticed that when readers ask questions in the comments, other readers often point them to the editorial judgements embedded in the story.

In one example from earlier this year, VG published a story about an influencer named Sophie Elise. In a related photo of the influencer that went viral, a woman next to her appears to be holding white powder that looks like cocaine — that woman is the girlfriend of the son of Norway’s crown princess. VG decided not to name or show the woman, and explained that decision in an editorial post. Many people referred to the blog post in debates about the photo, including on social media like Snapchat and TikTok, bringing VG’s transparency effort into the mainstream. “I think that was kind of a breakthrough because this story was…the biggest story in Norway that week,” Brenne said. “Everyone was discussing this.”

If a story like the Bar Vulkan incident were published today, Brenne added in a follow-up email, the newspaper would “certainly…inform about our choices with an editorial assessment” that might touch on why the newspaper published the video and blurred faces, why it used an anonymous source, and perhaps why the story is newsworthy and publishable. He added that this story was not the reason for VG’s policy changes, and “we would have gone in this direction anyway” — the story naturally catalyzed reckoning that was already underway about the importance of transparency.

Brenne has also observed that some other Norwegian newspapers seem to be emulating VG’s transparency initiative, though he said he has only noticed explanations of editorial choices for one-off individual stories rather than a systemic effort applied to all reporting. Recently, he even noticed that a tabloid had explained why it named an influencer in a story. “It’s become kind of a standard in some kinds of stories in Norway now,” he said.

For VG, Brenne sees the transparency portal as an early step in a process to continually strengthen reader trust in the internet age, and believes initiatives like this will increasingly become industry standards. He sees the rapid development of artificial intelligence as another pressing reason to prioritize transparency initiatives, so that readers understand how articles were written and know the difference between human and AI-generated content. For instance, he said, “if you are in Afghanistan, covering [a war story], I think you have to describe how you got there, what you saw…I think that people, without that kind of information, can maybe think that everything’s just generated from other sources.” (In a similar spirit, The New York Times recently launched enhanced bylines that include more context about reporting. And in a recent interview, former Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron said journalists “need to show more of our work” to build trust with readers.)

Brenne hopes to see editorial explanations that walk readers through the hows and whys behind reporting become part of every journalist’s job. To make this a natural part of the reporting process, he said, “would be a big revolution for a lot of journalists.”

If publications don’t open up about their reporting process in the future, Brenne said, “I think you will not be relevant in the future.”

Photo of VG reader statue in Oslo by James Cridland on Flickr.

Sophie Culpepper is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sophie@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@s_peppered).
POSTED     Aug. 7, 2023, 2:57 p.m.
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