Transparency and the news: Notes from Aspen

Transparency and the news: Notes from Aspen

: I wear two Spandex suits these days: Media Man and Blog Boy. I went to an Aspen Institute forum on journalism and society with lots of media machers because I, too, work for major media. And yet I found myself, once again, wearing the suit with the big “B” on the front. The return of Blog Boy!

And I report from the front that I am no longer treated like Spiderman in the Bugle: as a menace. There is a recent and refreshing openness to weblogs and citizens’ media among the media big boys.

Well, it’s more than that. It’s fear. I gave a spiel on technology and the newsroom — about more than just weblogs, but it turned into a discussion of just weblogs — and at our closing session, half the participants said they were awakened about blogs and even frightened of being left behind in this blog thing. In previous sessions like this, I’ve heard half the big media guys dis and dismiss blogs, but there was none of that here, none of it. The curiousity about blogs ranged from cautious to cordial to rabid. These big media guys (not unlike the mullahs of Iran) realize that blogs are here to stay; we are a force to be reckoned with; and now they’re reckoning what to do about it. That is good news for us. It is also good news for the news business. If this leads to openness, transparency, and accountability, then credibility and trust will follow.

At the same time, the news business recognizes that — in the argot of the age — it has issues: Jason Blair lied. Circulation directors have been lying. Circulation is declining. Readers are complaining. The index of trust in the news business is doing about as well as Martha Stewart’s stress level. Niche media is growing while mass media isn’t. And the Internet is disrupting the essential roles of media players in the creation, aggregation, and distribution of information. So we were called together to investigate the need for, means of, and extent of transparency that should come to journalism.

: I decided not to blog the event; I soaked it up instead (and soaked up plenty of good red wine, too). We are allowed to write about it, but we are asked not to attribute quotes to individuals without their permission. I preferred to eat and drink rather than pestering my fellow Aspenites for their permission. So please forgive me for relying on anonymous sources as I give you a few notes on the forum. These are just my notes, blogcentric for you; it’s by no means a fair or complete report.

: I’ll start at the end. We were broken into groups — aren’t we always? — to grapple with ways to increase the transparency, trust, and accountability of the news business. No one thought that these things were not necessary (file under: progress). But what was interesting was seeing where the limits were with these folks.

The transparency group came back saying we should do a much better job explaining our process to the public. But they said it would be going too far to make story meetings public ; they suggested, instead, revealing the stories that did not make it onto page one in an attempt to reveal more of the process. They also suggested that we’d be wise to explain the process of how news is created more fully; it’s time to show the sausage extruders. But — enter Blog Boy — I said they didn’t go far enough. I quoted many participants at the first Bloggercon as they beseeched‘s Len Apcar for an open window on the paper’s process (while he demurred). I said that we should be unafraid to reveal everything that did not compromise newsgathering. I also said it would be beneficial to show the thought process and hard deliberation and thorough research that, indeed, goes behind the creation of news. Teeth gnashed. Some venerable news souls said, to much nodding, that we should not make this process public; that we need to be able to be frank in those meetings; that danger lurks there. They said that as a matter of principle, news should be judged by the product, not the process. Most seemed to agree with that. But Rob Prichard, head of Canada’s Torstar, did me the favor of rephrasing my hyperbole as a new “presumption of transparency”: We should reveal everything we can. And there the debate begins.

The trust group suggested, among other things, posting bios and backgrounds of reporters and editorial writers online. OK so far. But then they suggested signing individual editorials. Hubub ensued. The venerable news souls said that defeats the very purpose of editorials, which speak as statements of principle of the institution. I’d sign them. They wouldn’t. The line was drawn. The debate begins.

My accountability group suggested a principle of revealing reporters’ experience and bias. More tsuris. A venerable reporter said that when he is asked what party or candidate he supports, he finds a way to say, “none of your business.” He called that “intrutrusive.” This same reporter acknowledged that a colleague/competitor saw it another way; he announced that he was conservative but said that did not stop him from doing a good job. I would add that it probably improves his credibility. As one of the wise folks around the table said, the presumption of bias in the public is often a presumption of hidden agendas and the more we unhide those agendas, the better for our credibility and trust. I agree. Not everyone does… yet. So more debate.

The groups agreed that we need clear, open policies — statements of ethics and procedures. They agreed that we need better corrections that, in the words of one group, mitigate the error. They agreed that we need to do a better job of training journalists and newsrooms in these policies. And, they said, we also need to do a better job of educating the public about how newsgathering works. They agreed that we need to work hard to rebuild trust.

: This is what I said about the culture of transparency in my presentation at the start of the session:

This is the gift economy, in which we share our experience and information and talents with others in the expectation that what goes around will come around.

This is a extremely social movement

  • Dexter Westbrook

    I understand the argument of, “Look at the product, not the process.” However, a newspaper would not accept that argument from, say, a state legislature or city council. Having some inkling about the process is important too.

  • You’re a rabble-rouser, Jeff! Speaking truth to power! Good work!

  • curt

    If the mainstream media won’t change, then they deserve the not so slow death they will suffer in the marketplace. I no longer read my local rag because of its unacknowledged but obvious bias. I do read blogs on both sides of the spectrum, as there i at least know who i’m dealing with and from what perspective they approach the news. Long live the internet.

  • Maureen

    I’m glad journalists realize there’s a problem. They’ve left it almost too late — but American society has a genius for pulling out of death spirals at the last possible second. I shall expect things to get better.

  • Charlie (Colorado)

    They said that as a matter of principle, news should be judged by the product, not the process.
    That’s fine. What they’re missing is that we are judging them by their product, and too often, the product sucks.

  • annette

    conversation and community are key to news credibility. i rely on the web and blogs for my news and updates during the day. mainstream media ranks as entertainment on tv and irritation on paper because of overt political agendas: lack of free speech, putting a “glow” around kerry and edwards, refusing to acknowledge joe wilson’s scam, and a political correctness that makes salem witch trials look familiar. i love the independent voices and personal takes of blogs, and i read the comments to enhance the original arguments–i don’t care if the commentors agree or disagree–i want to hear them. Media peers impress each other and talk down to lowly citizens, assuming “they’ll believe what we tell them to believe.” Wrong.

  • chuck

    Maybe it will be like the transition of silent film to talkies. Famous actors and actresses replaced wholesale by new faces. I do wonder where the news will come from, though. Most blogs at this point are either selected collections of links, or commentary. There is much that can be learned from the comments of widely experienced people, many of whom are not in the media business, but where does the raw material come from? We still need reporters and wire services. Perhaps the industry could become less centralized, but there remains a need to pay people to work full time on collecting and reporting news. The feedback on blogs does help to keep folks honest and point out things that people would like more information on, so, in the end, that may be the biggest difference. Reporters as paid researchers for their audience.

  • Yeehaw! Thanks for standing up for us, Jeff! You’ve said what I’ve been saying to other bloggers in comments for weeks now (listen to me – sounds like I’ve been at this for years, LOL – but we won’t forget that you gave us our first major leg-up in the blogosphere by mentioning us in your column in May) and I truly believe that blogging and bloggers will absolutely change the face of media. If they don’t try to keep up and drop the bias, they’re DOA.

  • Mike

    Did anyone note that lying to the customers, equivocating, shading the truth, etc. was not the best way to build up trust? Just asking.

  • Anna

    Also – do trust (and ethical obligations) go out the window on the editorial pages? If the rest of the paper and the labors of the hardworking, ethical journalists therein just exist in order to serve as the protein sheath (think Tech Central Station here – ), softening the readers up for the publisher’s payload, is this ethical?
    How can we the readers find out if this is standard practice – both for a particular paper, and industrywide?

  • Anna

    (i.e. deliberately deceptive editorials that support the publisher’s (or perhaps owner’s) interests, whose reasoning no one is willing to justify)

  • I think the idea of giving background information about reporters (including their bias) is great. That might really add some credibility to their work. Yet we should acknowledge that in principle such a thing as objective reporting is not entirely possible. Every reporter approaches a story with a pre-configured understanding of things (call it cognitive). Even though they try to meet the objective criteria (which are a set of criteria which are thought to be objective themselves), you will have different results. (And that’s also where blogs come in as a form of media – but that’s another story.)
    While this is not a bad thing initially, we should always be aware of that.

  • Michael Zimmer

    Blogs are not immune to bias – the trope that becuase blogs allow comments, cross-links and fact-checking is as thick a layer of wool over the eyes as the fallacy of objectivity is for traditional journalism. Bias exists; admit it, identify it, deal with it.
    On a different note, NPR this morning started a series of “reporter profiles” in which they aim to give some background information on information-gatherers from radio, print, TV, and yes, even bloggers. I can’t seem to find a link…anyone have more information?

  • Jeff: slightly (but only slightly) off topic — see you at the Toronto Conference Aug. 3!

  • Speaking of what “readers call crap,” Donald Luskin at The Conspiracy to Keep You Poor and Stupid reports something we had heard out of the corner of our ear on “FOX & Friends” this morning:

    The New York Times’ coverage of former Clinton security chief Sandy Berger’s taking of classified material didn’t make the print edition today, we hear [We had thought ED Hill mentioned a brief item placed deep inside the paper — either way, an apparent attempt to soft-pedal it]. A brief story on the Times’ website based on an earlier AP report downplays it, saying, “Mr. Berger returned all of the documents and notes to the archives in October, within a week of his learning they were missing, his lawyers said.”

    Which is incorrect, of course.
    “All the news that’s fit to print” hits the fan

  • thibaud

    A core problem with your profession, in my view, is that it does not adhere to any of the principles or standards that characterize true professions.
    Compare journalism to medicine or law or accounting. Does journalism have certification bodies? Agreed ethical standards? Standardized peer review?
    The only thing I can think of that even approximates one of the above is the Ombudsman function–which, until very recently, did not even exist at the leading newspaper!
    Also, unlike their peers in the other professions, journalists are not required to master a body of scientific concepts and then apply them with the precision, objectivity and disinterested devotion to craft that we associate with a true professional.
    Sure, sure, it’s not an “objective” or “scientific” endeavor, and a journalist learns his craft not in school but by covering city hall, etc etc.
    However, consider how specialized and arcane are most of the subjects journalists cover these days. Two subjects I know well are outsourcing and Russia. How can you cover outsourcing trends if you don’t have a basic understanding of back-office functions and how they affect the P/L and B/S?
    As to Russia, the western media coverage of that country is with few exceptions a bad joke. Most journalists sent there don’t even speak Russian, let alone have meaningful contacts in the only institutions that function effectively, and therefore that truly run the country: the FSB and the natural resources tycoons.
    Blogs at least provide access to true expertise.

  • Cosmo

    Thanks for your hard work, Jeff.
    Per Dexter’s comment, it’s interesting to hear journalists invoke essentially the same (entirely legitimate, I think) argument for keeping things like story meetings out of the public eye that government officials use to protect their own idea sessions and freewheeling-, brainstorming-type meetings. Both have enormous responsibilies which accompany the rights we give them.
    I’m not arguing for keeping these processes entirely secret, just for a recognition that encouraging creativity generates all sorts of half thoughts, dead ends of curiosity and inappropriate or unfeasible options which can be mis-interpreted in any number of ways.

  • Old Grouch

    Re: Thibaud’s comments above:

    “Does journalism have certification bodies? Agreed ethical standards? Standardized peer review?”

    Well, no it doesn’t (except for the j-school diploma, which I’ll address below), but do we really want to go there? I certainly don’t want government licensing of reporters, and I’m suspicious of “professional certification” becoming a means of strangling competition by keeping out the unwanted or politically incorrect. (If there was a “professional journalist” standard, how many blogers would qualify? Hey you with the degree, have you ever tried to get a teaching license?) As to “standardized peer review,” well, that runs into this thing called “freedom of the press,” which includes the freedom to be biased, superficial, and wrong. Want to do away with that? Who sets the standards?

    “…journalists are not required to master a body of scientific concepts and then apply them with the precision, objectivity and disinterested devotion to craft that we associate with a true professional.”

    Journalism isn’t medicine or engineering. Its “body of concepts” could probably be outlined in a couple of blog posts, the rest is application. “Precision, objectivity, and disinterested devotion…” come from experience, and from within. A sloppy, superficial reporter would probably be a sloppy, superficial store clerk. The difference is that the clerk would probably be fired sooner :-)
    Meanwhile, the “professionalization” of journalism has contributed to other problems that Thibaud points out:

    “How can you cover outsourcing trends if you don’t have a basic understanding of back-office functions and how they affect the P/L and B/S?… Most journalists sent [to Russia] don’t even speak Russian, let alone have meaningful contacts…”

    When the only people you will hire as reporters are those with journalism degrees, you’re going to get a narrow, self-selected group of people. (Could Edward R. Murrow (Speech, Washington State College) be hired by CBS News today?) Go back a couple of generations, and you’ll find newsrooms populated with passionate, cranky misfits (gee, just like the blogosphere!). Contrast their varied backgrounds and wide-ranging interests with today’s journalists, whose backgrounds are mostly “about journalism.” Add the decline of beat reporting, and the result is news being reported by people who don’t even know what questions to ask.

  • thibaud

    Fine points, for the most part. Objectivity is probably a hopelessly unrealistic goal, so perhaps it’s not such a bad thing that we’re moving rapidly toward a partisan press where bias is taken for granted. Caveat lector.
    I agree that good journalists tend to be sharp, cranky individualists who’re as likely to waste time on J-school as a talented tech entrepreneur would be to waste time getting an MBA.
    In the internet age, though, it’s no longer enough to be street-smart and to have superior sources. The source advantage is fleeting at best. Anyone with a browser and a set of hotlinks to blogs and the wire services can jump on a breaking story in no time.
    As to expertise, most articles are too short to allow a journalist to do more than to quote a couple of experts, add some judgment and context, and leave it at that. If the subject matter is a technically complex subject or is taking place in an area where the journalists simply don’t have good sources, then the blogosphere will provide anyone willing to do some digging to find much richer, deeper, and better-informed commentary. Which, by the way, will also have the cranky and opinionated flavor that you characterize as crucial to lively reporting.
    For example, if I want to get on top of a story about, say, Florida election law, or outsourcing, or Russia’s power struggles, or naval maneuvers in the Taiwan Straits, or Iranian military forces sheltering Al Qaeda jihadists, why would I go first to the NY Times? Their Russia coverage sucks. Ditto for Iran. They have no one on their staff who really grasps the basic financial and operational aspects of outsourcing. And of course their reporters are not well versed in Florida election law.
    For all of these matters, Times or other reporters are simply going to read what their peers have written and then call up a few government or academic sources, and then cut and paste a small subset of those experts’ views. All of which is heavily filtered through the biases and preferred angle of the journalist.
    Why not go directly to the sources themselves? I’d rather read Michael Ledeen than the NYTimes on Iraq–even though he’s something of a nut– because he actually knows what he’s talking about, has unusual sources, and doesn’t cloak his findings in all manner of “on-the-one-hand, on-the other” BS.
    In sum, I’m not sure that there is a future for the professional journalist who does not have any expertise and is writing in the traditional format. Neither am I sure that’s such a bad thing.

  • thibaud

    Correction: Ledeen on IRAN, not Iraq. Ledeen is ex-CIA. He’s been pounding the Iran-as-Terror-Central story for years, and it appears that his view is correct.
    So if the choice is either partial coverage (or no coverage or bad coverage) from the Times, or thorough coverage by people who are expert in an issue and make no bones about their biases, then I’ll go with the expert anytime, and apply my own grain or two of salt. The Times’ coverage sucks because it’s late, it’s partial, and it relies on experts who are no less biased but whose comments are always truncated and filtered to the point of complete blandness.
    If I’m going to get bias whether I read the Times or surf the blogs, why not go with liveliness, depth, and lengthy coverage? In any case I sure as hell would not pay for the Times. Used to subscribe to and read the Times faithfully every day, but since the age of Google and blogs, I haven’t paid a penny for a single issue of NYT.

  • Larry J

    I’m a private pilot and a software engineer working in aerospace with decades of experience. It’s rare for me to find an article on aviation or space in the popular press that doesn’t contain errors. As a rule, if I want accurate information, I have to go to the trade press like “Aviation Week & Space Technology.” Their reporters have a clue about the subject.
    My point? If it’s rare for me to read an error-free popular press article on subjects I know about, how can I have any confidence in the other articles they print on other subjects? The end result is that I find the Press has very low credibility.
    I’m a news junkie, but I’ve stopped watching the network news. Between their bias and lack of credibility, they just aren’t worth the time. From what I’ve heard, a lot of other people seem to be reaching similar conclusions. To those of you who work in the Press, you can keep on turning out crap if you wish. Just don’t complain when you lose your customers and ultimately, your jobs. The Detroit automakers had a similar attitude back in the 1970s. In the end, they lost a huge percentage of the US market and several hundred thousand jobs.

  • Paul Brinkley

    Jeff, how quickly do you think you can turn Media Man and Blog Boy into a comic book, sell the rights to Sony, and have a blockbuster motion picture? ‘Cause this is pure gold.
    Still likin’ the flavor of your Kool Aid…

  • Yeah, and lawyers and doctors are OH so ethical… Good thing for those certification procedures and so forth.
    I also can’t stand most mass media, for reasons similar to Larry J’s. But my “bag” is religion, and it is excruciating listening to reporters get THAT mixed up. The idea that Catholics are indistinguishable from Prot. fundies and/or The Amish is rampant around here (Toronto). During the Papal Visit/World Youth Day here, the media was like: Wow, all these kids are smoking and drinking and smootching and laughing and stuff! What would the pope say?
    Uh? Ever watch Mean Streets, guys? Been to an Italian wedding lately? You’ve obviously mistaken us for those 300 million OTHER people. Nice education you got there at J-school.
    And I’m supposed to trust the media on Iran and Iraq??