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