Posts about transparency

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.

The BBC opens its drawers

Sometime Monday morning, the BBC will open up its editors’ blog, an attempt to get the heads of its many news networks to open up and talk about the process of news.

I’ve been reading their pilot posts behind a wall for a few weeks. And it’s pretty good. I just spoke with Giles Wilson, the BBC online editor in charge of the project, who said the initial plan was to launch the blog in August but it seemed to be going well, so they decided to take the wraps off now. And, of course, a blog that no one can read is the tree that falls in the forest with no one to hear it. So the reaction to and interaction with the blog and the shows’ editors will be what really makes it.

Wilson said they had the editors of all the BBC’s major news shows signed up, except for the new chief of Today, who’s still scoping his turf.

This is another move toward transparency by another big news organization and I’m glad to see it. Considering that the BBC, like monopoly papers in the U.S., tries to insist that it is unbiased, it will be interesting to watch how these editors deal with questions about their editorial choices, which inevitably carry prejudice, presumption, and bias.

I’m hoping that once the gates come down, the editors will join in conversations not only with their audiences but with other blogging journalists.

I see that healthy rivalry already. In the latest post, Peter Barron of Newsnight complained about Guardian Unlimited editor-in-chief Emily Bell (and I sent the post to Bell, who said they’re having Barron on the Media Guardian podcast to duke it out). Barron wrote:

The estimable Emily Bell of the Guardian is always at it, complaining recently about the BBC’s digital plans and asking “is it really necessary, useful or at all enhancing to have a Newsnight podcast?”. The viewers of course have answered resoundingly by propelling our weekly offering to number three in the news podcast chart.

Having bragged about his popular podcast, the then complains he’s not No. 1. Here’s what is:

No, it’s something called Kitcast.

Kitcast is, according to the blurb, “a ten-minute weekly videoblog covering the world of sex. ” Each episode, it goes on, is “hosted by a lingerie clad (non-nude) hostess Ms Kitka” – a little red box warns of explicit content.

Does that matter? Well, consider two developments in the digital revolution this week. First, that traditional showcase of musical popularity Top of the Pops was summarily swept away. Then, the BBC’s website launched an ingenious new device which tells you at any moment of the day or night what the most popular and most emailed stories are. With every passing day, what viewers watch is being decided less by editors and more by algorithms which place one thing or another at the top of the pile. And in that world, how content is categorised is everything.

When the gate comes down, here are a few links to posts on the blog:

: Paul Brannan, deputy editor of the BCC news online, says that they’re facing a new issue: people who want their quotes from a few years ago removed because, for some reason, they’re embarrassed now.

: Kevin Marsh, of the BBC College of Journalism, wonders whether newspapers can really represent readers.

: Alistair Burnett of The World Tonight explains a decision to lead the broadcast with news in Somalia over Sri Lanka.

: Peter Rippon of PM explains the use of the F-word in the afternoon. Kevin Bakhurst of News 24 did likewise]. And in another discussion of no-no words, Kevin Marsh links to this helpful ranking of them.

: Fran Unsworth, head of newsgathering, talks about different policies regarding “user-generated content.”

: LATER: Here’s Director of News Helen Boaden’s welcome. She says: “We are committed to being impartial, fair and accurate – these are the qualities which BBC News is rightly expected to uphold. But we also want to be open and accountable….”

: See also Steve Hermann, editor of the BBC News web service, analyzing traffic to what’s popular there.

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.

More opinions on opinions

Here we are for part II.

Dan Gillmor talks about the need for transparency. I gave my predictable spiel (below). Vaughn Ververs said it’s too hard to keep up with being transparent and it’s not as simple as a label and I agree with that but when it’s relevant it’s worth it, I think.

Hugh Hewitt says people want to be able to navigate about fixed point and big media doesn’t reveal those fixed points. He said he spoke to a class at Columbia and asked a list of questions about issues and with one exception they were all on the hard left. “You’re all going to deny that it matters to your audience but that’s why you’re losing your audience… If you’re not going to tell your audience they’re not going to trust you.” Landman objects and says they are not losing audience. Merrill Brown says he will not let “the spin of the newspaper industry go unchallenged.”

David Carr says that in spite of Times editor Bill Keller’s efforts at openness, the Times is not transparent. That is, before the assignment, a reporter with a conflict will not be assigned to the story that may touch that conflict. He answered my smoking shtick saying that he smokes but he was in favor of the smoking ban and he’s confident he could write a story about a smoking ban down the middle. “At a certain point, people have to trust the brand, have to trust the standards, have to trust the mediation.”

Dvorkin says to Hugh, “you’re describing a world without editors.” He talks about reporters assigned to troubled spots in the world who eventually go native and quit to become advocates. And he says he tells them they should not be journalists if they care that passionately about an issue.

Peter Hart of FAIR says that the background of personal stances does not matter next to the product itself.

Hugh Hewitt says, as a lawyer, that this is contrary to the standard of evidence. In a trial, an expert must give their background so the jury may judge what they say. “Journalism wants nothing of those rules of evidence. They don’t want confrontation…. Mainstream media is so removed from the rules of evidence” that they are losing credibility.

Jim Brady answers the metaphor says the one person in the courtroom who’s not questioned is the judge. Nice touch. The implication is that journalists are the judge. I say that’s not the case. The public is the judge.

Dan says he is arguing more for institutional transparency than individual transparency.

Vaughn Ververs says that what is important about transparency is the willingness to defend and explain a story. Well said.

Jon Landman says he comes out where Dan does and that I “apply transparency in a mechanical way that’s not terribly helpful.” True. I apply it somewhat symbolically, culturally. Landman says that papers need to do a better job of transparency and that this is also about the process, about journalism as a team sport.

Jay Rosen brings up the NSA story as a case where transparency comes to the rub. The story was held at first out of concern of harm to national security but then released and Jay says he wants to know what went into that decision. Landman says that Keller explained that it was not released because of concerns about sources. Jay says this is where the limit of transparency — Landman agrees — but Jay asks whether Keller needs to be more transparent to be trusted.

Hugh says the brand has become a collection of bylines. He asked his audience the night before what they should say today and an emailer said to tell this table “we don’t trust them.” He acknowledges that the people who call into a talk show are self-selecting anyway, “they’re props” (much laughter; insert irony).

Heyward asks whether transparency is an answer to the issue of trust. “I would just answer questions.” He complains that Keller would not come on his show. That, he says, is hiding and that leads to the belief that you have something to hide.

Vaughn says he’s now hearing the same complaints about the media from the left that he had long heard it from the right: the media are the creatures of corporate interests that protect power.

Brady says that we all agree that transparency but we disagree about whether we want it to be back-end or front-end — that is, before or after the story. Peter Hart says that perhaps the issue is more responsiveness than just transparency.

Someone says that people don’t hear their view reflected in what they see and hear on TV. That’s because we present the country as hard blue or hard red and that’s not where the country is; the people are more nuanced. The issue is not balancing out the ends but including the middle. Amen.

Carr said it’s important that Bush came in saying that he didn’t buy the argument that the press is a proxy for the American people. He says he met Bill Clinton once and he spoke to Carr for 20 minutes about the Times being cowed by the right. “These people understand power,” he said.

Jay says that Dana Milbank of the Washington Post loves it when people from both the left and right are screaming at you it is journalists’ indication of balance. He says it is possible, just possible, that they’re both yelling at you maybe there’s a reason you’re doing something wrong. I’ll get this wrong but Jay says we have a situation where one party, the Republicans, attack the press and the press decides not to attack back and then the left goes after you for that. The result is more dissatisfaction and anger.

Dvorkin says there is a notion he hears that the media should operate at the loyal opposition and he questions that, especially because the opposition party is also being criticized for not taking that role.

Dan Gillmor says the most important thing to do is to listen. Dvorkin says that people are grateful when they get access, “and then they get mad.” Landman says the most underused asset is the public. “The more we can use the intelligence and the knowledge of those people the better our information will be… Simply opening the door is not the best way to do that. We need more sophisticated means.”

Merrill Brown says that inviting the public in before is important — why doesn’t a health reporter have a health blog to llisten.

Amanda Congdon says that whether you talk about transparency or responsiveness “it’s not optional.” Andrew asks what the value of rich worldwide news resources is important to the next generation of news consumers. Amanda replies that if they don’t seem interested it’s because news is presented in a condescending way. This, she says, is why they turn to blogs.

Vaughn brings up the old saw that what the bloggers talk about is the news the big guys produce. Dan Gillmor says that’s simplistic; there are blogs that are doing reporting but in more focused areas than big media can afford.

Opinions about opinions

I am at the Museum of Television & Radio Media Center event about opinion and news with Andrew Heyward moderating. Random not-quite-live blogging ensues…. I’ll boldface a few of the good bits (opinionated judgments, all).

: Lou Dobbs comes up immediately as a poster child for opinion and news. A few of the people here are, unfortunately, off the record, but suffice it to say that Dobbs, controversial as he may be among journalists, is proving to be a credible success with the audience.

Peter Hart of FAIR says he has no problem with him having an opinion but he has problems with the quality of his journalism and cites specifics. I say that this shows the benefit of being transparent about perspective: We got past Dobbs’ opinions because we know them and talk about the quality of his reporting. David Carr of the Times says the commercial imperative gets in the way — a controversial Dobbs is a ratings hit — and that, in turn, gets in the way of the journalism.

Jeffrey Dvorkin, ombudsman of NPR, says his problem is that we’re not doing enough reporting: In his words, this is about “fact-based reporting vs. faith-based reporting.”

Vaughn Ververs of CBS’ Public Eye says people are seeing as opinion what is indeed reporting: If you go to Iraq and see a mess and say it’s a mess is that opinion or reporting?

Vaughn makes a very important point: There is no algorithm that tells you the difference between opinion and news. Perspective is opinion. News judgment is opinion.

Merrill Brown says he knows of no data linking declining trust in news with an increase in opinion.

David Carr says this is nothing new in this and raises the Cronkite Vietnam example. Heyward says that what stood out about that was that it was atypical and uncharacteristic.

Jon Landman of the Times says the idea that “the idea that the blend of opinion and news is new is not serious.” He says they have blended long since in many media. He says having news and commentary don’t have anything to do with the credibility issues now. So what is it about, Heyward asks. Landman says we have an increasingly divided society that “has the means to hear what it wants to hear.”

Jay Rosen says that a lot of this discussion is about “how to be virtuous in the news business… and it is taken as given that it is virtuous to separate news and opinon.” He says the same is the case about complaints about the audience — ‘they only listen to what they want to hear.’ He says the arguments about opinion bring a jaundiced way to judge the audience. He says it is about trust and if you want to persuade to trust your account, there are many ways to do that: ‘I got it from God’ … ‘I’m a PhD’ … or trying to argue that you have no religion in the story and so you should be trusted in your account.

Landman says that’s a strawman. He says that people don’t see opinion journalism as inferior to fact-based journalism.

I’d say that this is precisely the arrow shot at bloggers: you’re just opinion.

Dvorkin says the 800-pound gorillas in the room are Fox (invited but not present) and economics. He quotes CBS news boss Dick Salant in a fabled story that the good news and bad news of his time was that CBS News started making money.

Peter Hart says that journalism is supposed to be aggressive and that’s going to piss people off. Tony Burman of the CBC says the commercial motivation is behind this.

I think the marketplace is too often portrayed as the boogeyman, the blame vessel. The marketplace is the public you want to serve.

Hugh Hewitt says “a lot of people trust journalists a lot” but they trust different journalists. He says that the biggest sustained audience in broadcast is Rush Limbaugh at 20 million a week and because those people trust him. He says Rush is rebranding himself as “America’s anchor in contrast to drive-by media.”

After a discussion of the Colbert Report, Rocketboom’s Amanda Congdon says that her show candid and that is its appeal. Heyward says there is an issue of “the real voice” that came out, for example, in Katrina. He says that one could judge the voice of the anchors there positively or cynically. There was a question of injecting humanity into news. I said it’s sad we have to inject humanity. It shows that we hit our humanity.

Now we get to the 900-pound gorilla: does expressing your opinion grant you trust or diminish your trust. I argue the former. Dvorkin and Landman argue the latter. Landman says that people on the other side of the immigration debate don’t trust Dobbs because his opinion is stated. Dan Gillmor says it’s a matter of knowing where he stands and being able to refract through the lense of his knowledge about Dobbs’ stand to make a better judgment about what he says.

Carr says that the next gorilla is that “this thing that we’re all annotating” and commenting on is going away. Carr quotes another person saying that once you can make a parody about news then the audience is in on the joke.

Jim Brady of says the audience has changed because there are more roads leading to news. One-third of the referrers traffic WashPost gets comes through blogs, Brady says. Blog that.

Tom Easton of the Economist says the used to conflate “information” and “news” and “now you don’t have to” because now you can go to more original sources of information. He says his future as a reader of news is “a reader of links.” Well said. “We might just be going into the information businesses. We might be bypassing all of us.” We can go to the original sources. Dan Gillmor says, “you have the time to do that…. The people in this room are actually different from most people out there, who have lives.” Easton says that in the ’70s you’d have to go to a law library to read the abortion opinion; now you can get it directly.

Easton says he doesn’t like the cynicism of The Daily Show because, if I paraphrase him correctly, it doesn’t deliver information. Someone else says that is why The Smoking Gun is popuar.