Transparency spreads

Amazingly the public editor of the Akron Beacon Journal, Mike Needs, calls for reporters and editors to post personal disclosures of political and religious affiliations and more:

An old-school editor once told me he refused to vote or go to church.

Why? He said he wanted to avoid even the perception of a conflict of interest. He and the newspaper could never be accused of favoring a particular church or political party if he held no formal connection to either.

Frankly, I think it was more his being jaded about religion and cynical of politicians.

His policy came to mind during a call last week from a Stanford University student, who asked to interview me for his graduate project. His opening question: “Should a newspaper post bio pages for all its reporters?”

I surprised him when I replied, “Yes, there is more to gain than there is to lose by doing that.”

A big buzzword among newspapers these days is “transparency,” as in showing you the inner workings of the newsroom. Here’s the theory: By giving you insight into controversial decisions, newspapers hope you will be more inclined to accept the reasoning and less likely to assign incorrect motives.

But detailed reporter bio pages go many steps beyond simple “transparency.”

The interview continued.

How much information would I consider appropriate? Again, I shocked him. Political and religious affiliations, education background, media experience, active membership in organizations, and any involvement in causes or campaigns that could have any influence on a journalist’s news judgment.

Not only that, I’d do the same for any editor involved in news decisions….

Couldn’t agree more. Here is my disclosure page. But see also the discussion at the Museum of Television & Radio Media Center’s recent event, where responsiveness was seen by many to be just as important as transparency. Fine. I’ll take both.

  • Clément Laberge

    I’m just arriving in Paris from Québec for professional reason and i’m trying ton understand the relation that french people have with media.

    In “Le Monde” newspaper today we can read:

    “Huit français sur dix seraient gênés qu’un présentateur de journal télévisé affiche ses convictions politiques et à peu près autant (77%) qu’il affiche ses convictions religieuses, selon un sondage Ipsos/TV Hebdo publié mardi…”

    That means that 80% in France would be upset by a news anchor with such transparency on politics or religion.

    For more info on the poll results:
    http://www.lemonde.fr/web/depeches/0,14-0,39-27438906@7-37,0.html

    (in french, of course)

  • http://marginalizingmorons.blogspot.com/ CaptiousNut

    80% of the French are against it?

    I couldn’t think of a better endorsement FOR it.

  • James Cooney

    Transparency is very important for me these days, as I fear a lack of it, and the subsequent filters that take place can actually get in the way of quality reporting. I wonder though, what would be appropriate lines not be crossed for privacy concerns. Needs makes a brief reference to this.

    Your discolsure page is admirable. I wonder, though, if that level of disclosure is appopriate for all reporters. Would a sliding scale of disclosure, based upon the reporter’s beat, sensitivity of issues covered, and probably (if unfortunately) popularity work? Or, is anything less than full disclosure going to cause trouble?

    Cheers.

  • Andy Freeman

    Successful news organizations have a good answer to the question “Why/when should I believe you?” Jarvis says that transparency is one part of the answer.

    If you agree, when do you think that partial transparency will do? One answer is “when what is being hidden is irrelevant”, but how does the person asking the question know that the hidden is irrelevant?

  • James Cooney

    Andy: I may be taking too broad of a view of your question , but “How does the person asking the question know that the hidden is irrelevant?” sounds like a bit of a straw man. The answer is that you can’t. From there, either side of the argument can slide to extremes of attempts at complete (not that Jeff or the original article proposes this) transparency or a more old school “none, so trust the organization and the process.”

    A specific issue I’m thinking of here is on a local news level, financial transparency. Right now, it seems to me to be asking too much of local reporters (from here on out, when I refer to reporters, I am intentionally omitting business section employees, whom should make some level of financial disclosure) to make blanket public disclosures about finances, stocks, etc. that other local citizens would never make. Could conflicts of interest be hidden this way? Of course. However, I think at certain positions or beats, the risk is minimized to the point that asking for that disclosure might not be appropriate.

    Now, I’m not completely sold on the above argument – I’m still working through it. But what is the thinking here? Does the above described line exist? Right now, I think it does.

  • Erik Arneson

    Needs really hurts his credibility, in my view, by including this shamefully light disclosure on himself: “In that light, allow me to reveal I’m a registered Independent and I don’t have a current affiliation with any one church.”

    Big deal. I feel like I’ve learned absolutely nothing about him.

  • http://joabsblog.blogspot.com Shawn

    Transparency, at least widespread transparency, will never happen. Imagine this conversation going on in every major newsroom (print, broadcast and radio):

    #1: “Most Americans believe we are biased to some degree, so perhaps this transparency notion would convince them we are not.”

    #2: “If they think we are biased now, revealing to them that the vast majority of us are liberal politically and either liberal Christians, or agnostics and atheists, will only cement their views further. No, we’re better off keeping things they way they are.”

    Rare is the candor that we saw from liberal Andy Rooney, when he termed Dan Rather as being “transparently liberal”. If a free press desires integrity then they should adopt transparency, but I just cannot imagine the MSM in this country every going through with it.

  • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

    And everybody just loves Dan the Rather. Both sides embrace him, and his work warmly. …

    A bio page is transparency? It’s much more than that. The person connections are, of course, important, but the desire to be liked is also very much a fault in much of journalism today. You have to ask yourself Shawn, whether your views of the body of work would change under such wide disclosures of who the person is? Dismissal of a person/reporter can so easily be done on such trivial grounds; something as simple as “he’s a Yankee’s fan, well screw her?” can do it. It also has to be remembered that most journalists don’t get into covering issues where affiliations matter.

    In many ways it’s a buy in to the idea that a journalist can’t be effective reporting on Democrats if they’re a Republican or v.v. Or pick another area of contension.

    I like the idea, the theory of transparency – it’s not something Jarvis invented btw. however much he may try and persuade you otherwise – but I like more the idea of finding some place where you can just get news. That’s more important than fighting like hell as an editor and a reader to go against preconceived notions.

    There’s more to be said but ….