Posts about transparency

News and opinion

I’m part of an event at the Museum of Television & Radio Media Center on Wednesday about opinion and news, and so I’m putting my thoughts together beforehand. That’s not hard to do on this topic since it has been argued over … and over … and over. So there’s nothing new here, just a summary of things said before.

The question isn’t whether opinion should be injected into news. The issue is about revealing the perspective, opinion, and bias that already exist. It’s about transparency — into a journalist’s viewpoint and also into the process of news judgment. It’s time to unlock the sausage factory.

Key to this discussion is the realization that journalists do not own or even decide the truth. It is their job to help the public decide what is true. And so the public has a right to know what journalists bring to their stories so the public can make better judgments. The one real lesson the internet and the advent of two-way media has brought to the masters of old media is that they did not own trust. The journalists thought they could just tell the public to trust them and accept what they said as the truth. But they never really could.

At every journalism seminar like this, someone asks whether readers will trust a reporter covering an election after knowing how the reporter votes or what party she belongs to. I argue that the readers wonder and speculate about this anyway and so once it is out in the open, then the discussion can turn to the reporting: ‘Having said that I’m a liberal, now you can judge my work on its completeness, fairness, and accuracy.’ There is no agenda worse than a hidden agenda.

Sometimes it’s easier to discuss this in arenas other than politics. At yet another seminar on news and opinion, an editor raised the example of a reporter covering a smoking ban. If the reporter smokes, don’t we have a right to know that? If we catch the reporter outside the office catching a puff and we say, “gotcha,” isn’t that a problem? Should journalists ever be on the other end of a “gotcha”?

But none of this means that just because you have a relevant perspective on a topic in the news, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t cover it. Nor does it mean you should. A good reporter must be intellectually honest and report the facts no matter whose perspective they may bolster.

And none of this means that you need to reveal every single view you have, only those that are relevant. A food writer probably doesn’t need to say what party he belongs to. But if he can’t stand Italian food, that’s relevant.

Here are my disclosures.

The transparent meeting

I went to the only regularly blogged editorial meeting at a news organization that I know of: the morning confab at The Guardian.

It’s not quite like the newspaper editorial meetings I attended for too many years. They all want to be like The New York Times. And here‘s how Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger describes Times meetings:

It is a paper of great authority and if you ever go to the New York Times editorial meeting, it’s a bit like a religious ceremony. They meet for 45 minutes in the evening and great thought goes into what’s the lead story; what’s the second story; what’s the third story; what’s the relative typography of these. It is very serious men and women saying, This is our expert opinion and that of the hundreds of journalists that we employ who have thought about this deeply, they know what they’re talking about. ‘Believe us’ is the message. If it’s on the front page of the New York Times, it’s there because it’s important. It may be about things that you don’t think you’re interested in, you may not want to read it but this is our opinion and this is the model that’s existed again for hundreds of years.

And so now I crashed Rusbridger’s meeting. As it begins, a wall between his office and the newsroom is moved and the table is extended into a small area next door. The meeting is thus open to the newsroom and people crowd around; I’ve not seen even that level of openness in U.S. newsrooms.

It begins with Rusbridger taking a quick lap around that morning’s paper: a casual overview of what works (and, I’m sure, some days, what doesn’t). Then it turns to the essential business of the day: each editor reciting what his or her department is planning for the next day’s paper.

Then Rusbridger turned to the chief editorial writer, an impressive (and impressively young) man, to ask about the state of Blair’s tenure with local elections this week that are not boding well for Labour and with fresh political and sexual scandals whirring around them. There ensues a fascinating discussion about the current regime’s efforts to portray itself as a government of competence over ideology in the face of incompetence (over the release of foreign prisoners who should have been deported but instead stayed in the country and committed crimes). If the elections turn disastrous for Labour, they ask the now-perennial question: Will this be the last of Tony? They wonder what it would take to oust him from his own party and they say the precedent for this is Thatcher’s cabinet telling her it was time to go.

But I don’t need to summarize the meeting because Ed Pilkington, a veteran Guardian, editor, blogged it. Apart from not writing about unverified stories or scoops, I see no reason why news meetings everywhere cannot be opened up and blogged.

Gray ladies

Thomas Knüwer says that newspaper blogs are all gray and dull.

In the journalism blog at the Handelsblatt (Germany’s Wall Strasse Journal), Knüwe continues the discussion about Michael Hiltzik’s nom de snarks, newspaper blogs, transparency, and the reason why journalists have such a problem having open discussions with their readers. I don’t have my German dictionary with me, so I’ll paraphrase rather than translate what he says:

Perhaps this is a reason why so many blogs by professional journalists are so gray and dull: They don’t want to take fire for their opinions. In a paper, this is easy. One writes an article and gets perhaps angry calls and two or three letters and that’s that. In TV, the hotline takes the criticism; ditto radio.

In the internet, its much easier for readers to respond. And they impudently wait for a discussion. That’s hard; that’s work; that’s not normal.

But I’ll earnestly say: It makes for (saumäßigen?) fun. And it helps test your own arguments.

Now that’s the attitude.

Guilty by association

The Times takes another chance to slap blogs:

In the last few years, newspapers around the country have been testing the waters of the seldom-restrained, often scrappy world of Web-based journalism by setting their reporters loose to write their own blogs.

Last week, the experiment backfired for The Los Angeles Times. The newspaper suspended the blog of one of its columnists after it was revealed that he had posted comments on the paper’s Web site and elsewhere on the Web under false names.

Well, that’s like saying that The New York Times’ experiment in journalism backfired with Jayson Blair. This isn’t about blogging as a form. This is about journalists being afraid to deal with people, eye-to-eye.

It continues trying to make blogs look new, different, and scary:

The incident has underscored the difficulties that can arise when a newspaper gives free rein to staff writers on the Web.

Well, same goes for reporters talking on radio or TV or in speeches or in bars. Maybe they should travel around all the time with an editor.

The first layer of transparency: Identity

My take on LA Times reporter/blogger Michael Hiltzik‘s use of pseudonyms to comment on blogs in defense of his real self is that this is more than catching Hiltzik doing something silly and schizo.

This reveals a more fundamental issue in the relationship of mainstream news to blogs and interaction: Journalists have lost the ability to interact as people. Sometimes it’s a matter of alleged journalistic prissiness, a misguided attempt to maintain objectivity or whatever we call it now. Sometimes it’s a matter of corporate policy, rules that try to keep reporters from speaking except when edited. And sometimes it’s a matter of personal weirdness, an inability to face people directly. Another symptom of the disease — which I complain about here — is reporters sending emails to bloggers and demanding that their comments be off-the-record. Reporters, mind you, should be the last people on earth asking to be off the record.

The bottom line: Journalists who are afraid to speak as themselves in public. They thus separate themselves from the public they serve: scared of us or feeling superior to us, but not among us in any case. That is a mistake and an insult.

Now I was recently speaking with a journalist who reminds me that reporters and their institutions are larger, more visible, and juicier targets for attack than others. If you write about the Middle East enough, you get gun-shy seeing your name in forum posts or blog posts or emails. I get that.

But, still, here’s Hiltzik choosing to enter into a conversation with the public — the act of blogging is precisely that — but then pulling back to refuse to interact with honestly, at eye level. It’s an act of lying and of cowardice.

He complains that others online hide behind anonymity. And I agree with him in my general mistrust of the anonymous. But he doesn’t get to hide behind that. He has a byline and a podium and he can’t dash in and out of the closet, try as he might.

I would not fire Hiltzik. He screwed up and made an ass of himself. That is punishment enough. But let his story be a lesson to other journalists: The first level of transparency in your dealings with the public is identity. Stand behind what you say.

Proposal for a “correction” tag

Henceforth, when I correct a post or make a correction in a subsequent post, I will add a “correction” tag. I’d love to see that become standard operating procedure in blogs — and newspapers.

The reason: We are constantly questioned about our correction policies vs those of big media. I argue that we are better and certainly quicker at correcting our mistakes and that we are better at responding to our readers’ corrections of us. If we had a tag that allowed us to search on such posts, we’d be able to prove it.

I don’t mean that we should tag corrections of typos (God knows, every post of mine would carry the tag then!). Nor am I going to tag my posts about Iraq as corrections. ;-) If we label our corrections, we are being more transparent about errors that can show up in searches and feeds. And perhaps we inspire big media to do likewise.

Reading the wonderful Regret the Error inspired this.

: LATER: I didn’t know that ; + – + ) would actually give you a horrible little blinking yellow face; I thought it would just give you those characters. For that, I owe you not a correction but an apology.

Disclosure, continued

Craig Silverman, editor of Regret the Error, adds his answers to the Times disclosure questionnaire. He likes the notion of the questionnaire, as do I, and also adds good points to the discussion, including:

By not requiring its staff members to fill out the questionnaire, the Times is creating a two-tier system of disclosure within the paper. Just because someone is a freelancer, it doesn’t mean that they are more likely to plagiarize, get facts wrong, accept junkets, or allow their personal convictions or interests to cloud their work…. Singling out one group won’t solve the problem. Position does not dictate professionalism. Yet the Times seems to be sending the message that the investments, community activities and personal beliefs of staff members have no effect on their work, and that things are different for freelancers. It’s doubtful that senior editors there would be willing to argue this, yet the questionnaire remains for freelancers only. Staff members come under much more scrutiny from outside interests because of their position, yet they get a free pass? It doesn’t make sense. The Times does have its detailed Ethical Journalism policy for staff members, but having a written policy is not the same as asking for specific information from each person.

I don’t know that they don’t have a questionnaire for staffers. I would know if they made them public, which I think is needed.

Goose, meet gander: Answering The Times’ questions

I’d like us all to answer a few questions.

The other day, I blogged about The New York Times requiring freelance writers to answer a questionnaire about their other activities and any conflicts of interest. I suggested that every journalist, especially staffers, should fill out the questionnaire and that they should be made public.

Well, a birdie just sent me the questionnaire and so I’ll start the ball rolling. On my disclosures page, I’ve answered each of the questions, which I’ll list below.

I’ll also keep that ball rolling and suggest that bloggers should answer the questions as well and post them online to pressure mainstream journalists into such open disclosure.

And let’s keep it rolling still by suggesting other questions you think that journalists and bloggers should answer for their audiences. First, The Times’ questions:

1. Please list your other current employers, whether full time or part time

2. For what other employers have you worked in the last three years?

3. What sort of volunteer work do you do regularly, if any, and for whom? (Please include any public relations, advocacy or advisory board involvement.)

4. Do you do any work paid or unpaid in politics or government? Have you done any lobbying of governmental bodies?

5. Do you have any financial investments or financial ties that may limit your ability to cover specific topics free of conflict, and if so, what are the topics?

6. Although we don’t regulate the activities of spouses, partners or immediate family members of our contributors, do any of their professional or personal involvements or any of their financial investments or ties make certain topics inappropriate for you, and if so, what are the topics?

7. Have you accepted any free trips, junkets or press trips in the last two years? Have you accepted any substantial free merchandise or discounts from people we might cover?

8. Has anything you’ve written later resulted in a published editor’s note or retraction for deliberate falsehood or plagiarism or become the subject of a lawsuit involving allegations of deliberate falsehood? (If yes, please include details about the publication and your role in the article or story. If a lawsuit, please describe the disposition of the case.)

What else? This isn’t as simple as filling out a one-size-fits-all-beats list once. I believe that if journalists have something to disclose about their views or involvement in a story that a reader should properly know to judge that story, they should be updating on online disclosures page accordingly. We don’t need to litter stories in sparse print and airtime with every such disclosure; it could reach an absurd though amusing extreme (“The lawyer for the accused once bought me a beer”… “I own two shares of Microsoft stock”…). But we should not shy away from such disclosure when it is relevant.

Yesterday, I was on NPR’s Talk of the Nation with Jeffrey Dvorkin, the network’s ombudsman, and Brent Cunningham, managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, talking about just this. The host, Michelle Martin, wasn’t grasping the nuances of this discussion. For what came out is that Dvorkin, Cunningham, and I agree broadly (I hope I don’t mischaracterize their views) that objectivity, as upheld in j-schools of yore, is a false god; that honest, fair, and complete reporting in spite of any personal perspectives, prejudices, or assumptions is the right standard; and that relevant disclosure is good. Where we disagree about is how far that should go, and I wish we’d explored that more. So explore it here: How much disclosure is necessary and relevant?

Keep in mind that this does not mean that you’re disclosing deep, dark, family secrets about every story or laying your whole life bare. That’s not the point. This isn’t an exercise in Maoist self-criticism or columnist exhibitionism. This is about telling the people you’re talking with what they should know to understand your own perspective and what you bring to the story: “I’m writing about jazz but I prefer rock.” … or, “I’m covering a smoking ban and I used to smoke.” … or, yes, “I’m covering the Democrats and I am a Democrat.” It should not mean either that you should not cover a story because you have a relevant perspective or that you must because you do. This cuts both ways. The example I gave in yesterday’s discussion on NPR is that editors frequently assign African-American reporters to stories in the African-American community. That could be argued two ways: It’s stereotyping the reporters, or it’s assigning people who will understand those stories better. This doesn’t mean that they should or should not be assigned because of their background, but their background is relevant. The same goes for other stories where the background is not so transparent.

So if you join in and answer these disclosure questions, please tag it “disclosures.” And if you have any more questions you’d like to see journalists and bloggers answer, please add them to the comments.

: LATER: Vaughn Ververs answers the questions at Public Eye.