Transparency on transparency

I cringed when I read the latest Columbia Journalism Review and saw myself quoted and summarized wrongly. Since I can’t comment on the article itself or certainly correct the print version, I will clarify here and ask the author, CJR’s managing editor, Brent Cunningham, to link to this from the CJR site.

This is what Cunningham said in his effort to argue against one manifestation of transparency in journalism:

….This raises what for me is the most disturbing aspect of the confessional approach to transparency: By way of example, Jarvis suggested on the program that readers should know when an African American writer is assigned to cover an African American issue. The potential relevance is obvious, but people — both writers and readers — are not so simple. To assume that we can know what someone thinks by identifying their personal traits, habits, and predilections is a dangerous notion, and really has nothing to do with clarity. Indeed, what good is transparency when it becomes a form of blindness?

That is not what I said or certainly intended to say. I just received email from a colleague who also cringed, and for good reason, when he read that. This is what I said to him to clarify:

I was NOT saying that I expected reporters of one race or another to reveal their ethnicity, singled out. I was saying, instead, that over the years in newsrooms, I had watched as reporters of a given race were assigned stories because of their race or were not assigned stories for the same reason. There was an equation at work in those assignments that I specifically said I was not judging — and frankly am still not sure how to judge, for in some cases, it would be wrong to assign based on race but in other cases, I know that reporters of various ethnicities — African-American, Hispanic, and Caribbean, in my experience — or backgrounds — religious, gay, parents — who wanted to be assigned to stories or beats in these communities because they brought experience, interest, perspective, or contacts.

So this was not a matter of revealing that they were of a given race; the point was that their race was already apparent and was being used by editors — one way or another, for good reasons or not, with the reporters’ consent or not, openly or not — as the basis for assignments. So I was trying to illustrate that background has historically formed a basis, right or wrong, for assignments in some cases and not in others. And in some cases, that background is revealed, in others not. I argue that more transparency when it is relevant to a reading of a reporter’s story is good.

My correspondent complained, rightly, that I could have used other examples on NPR or when I recounted the conversation later here. He said I could have used other ethnicities but I’ll go farther, I could have talked about women being assigned to allegedly women’s stories (though I used to work in the Free Press Women’s Section, as it was called then); young people assigned to stories about young people, and so on. Perhaps I should have used those to make the illustration I was trying to make in the context of the conversation. I could have said it better or with greater clarity; my mistake.

So, to repeat, I was not saying that race specifically should be disclosed. But I am saying that background of any sort that may be relevant to a reporter’s view of a story and thus a reader’s reading of it should be shared. Sometimes this is background, sometimes attitude, sometimes experience, sometimes relationships. This ethic of transparency is something I have learned in the blog world and I respect it. My correspondent said, again quite rightly, that transparency can be, well, transparent: that a simple label may not be be adequate or clear or informative. Certainly that will be the case with one-word labels, whether racial, political, or religious: I am a very different Christian, for example, than the Christians I often see quoted in the media. But I’m not asking for one-word labels. I’m asking for reporters to share what may be relevant to the readers who read them. I know this is heresy in terms of my journalism training, but I see it work in, for example, the UK, where the Guardian and the Independent both make their worldviews quite clear but then go on to produce great journalism and to be judged on the merits of that journalism.

On the NPR show, Cunningham said that he agreed with me that “we are all creatures of our biases” but he added that he didn’t know where to draw the line. I agree that the line is not clear. Cunningham then said that “I’m not, in theory, opposed to that kind of transparency. I agree with Jeff that it’s a problem. But there are a lot of relevant bits of information and it’s hard to decide which bits to include.” I have no argument with his argument. I then used the example above in relation to assignments in newsrooms, though, again, I could have been clearer that I was referring to assignments. I then went on, by the way, to try to raise another tough example and asked, “If you’re covering abortion, should someone [by that, I mean, editor or readers] know that you’re Catholic?” But unless you’re wearing a habit or a collar, it’s not necessarily apparent. And it could be relevant. Similarly, if you’re covering a story about immigration and reveal in a blog that you are an immigrant and even talk about your experience and how it affected your coverage of the story, that could be quite helpful to readers; it adds to your reporting. If you’re a Times-Picayune reporter covering the aftermath of Katrina and I know that you, too, lost your home in the storm, that also adds something. But in any of these cases, it is still, of course, your job to report the facts with — as Cunningham said on that show — intellectual honesty, no matter whether they conform to your worldview and perspective or not.

Transparency is not a synonym for confession. Transparency is about information.

  • /pd

    Confusions are vertical .. Transparency is horizontal :)-

    However, I think that most industry use the same tactic, when it comes to assignments/projects etc. and not limited to the reporters in the MSM only !!

  • Misapprehension comes in two forms. That which arises by accident can be corrected. That which arises by plan needs condemnation.

  • I think you may have confused the transparency issue by bringing up a common mistake editors make in assigning stories involving race. Often, I think editors assume reporters of color have a particular expertise and insterest in covering such topics simply by virtue of their race. If editors would focus on issues such as the reporter’s interest and expertise in such issues, I think many of these concerns would resolve themselves.

    I know many black reporters who want to cover race issues and have expertise in the area. i know others who aren’t as interested and others who fear being pidgeonholed. conversations about whether such reporters are interested in such subjects would define assignments based on what people want to cover nd whtthey’re good at covering — which is always the better tack.

    Having a reporter disclose their ethnicity when they work on a story just perpetuates that mistake. Do Catholic reporters divulge their religion when working on stories about the church or about abortion? There is a line past which disclosure becomes at best impractical and at worst jarmful. this suggestion seems perched on that threshhold.

    The fact is, if a reporter has any discretion in his or her assignments, he or she is choosing story subjects based at least in part on personal interest. Why profile this web site instead of that one? Why write a column on this issue instead of another? Particularly in features and non-hard news areas, journalists often choose their subjects based on personal experience — you do a story on assimilation issues because you’ve faced it, or you write about a private school issue because you went to a private school or your kids do.

    In columns it is easier to disclose such experiences. But I think every reporter has them. Disclosing that stuff when it doen’t involve a substantial conflict — say, belonging to a specific church when writing a story about that church — would be impractical and many times would be an unwarranted invasion of the reporter’s privacy. Just because i’m doing a story on religion doesn’t mean I want people knowing I’m a devout Protestant or an Athiest…

  • As the great Hunter S. Thompson (no relation, how about that for transparency?) said, objectivity is for fools. We all bring biases to stories and editors bring their biases to assigning stories.

    Newspapering isn’t scientific. Nor is it historic. There is a level of trust involved and that requires some transparency on the part of reporters and editors. Including brief bios of reporters on newspaper web sites, with pictures, would help. That way, we as readers, can evaluate what biases we should bring about the reporter to our reading of their story. Are they old? Young? Black? Male?

    All these facts would influence how I read/understand some stories. Although 80% of newspaper reporting is straight/dry and seems to be written by the same person…

    Just a little more transparency from newspapers – such as publishing staff boxes on a regular basis – would be a big help.

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