Notions of Transparency in Journalism

I’ve been trying to get a handle on how interactive software such as games can be made more transparent, and perhaps more trustworthy. As suggested in The Elements of Journalism, transparency signals a respect for the audience and reaffirms a journalist’s public interest motive, the key to gaining credibility. “The willingness of the journalist to be transparent about what he or she has done is at the heart of establishing that the journalist is concerned with the truth” (p. 92). I’ve begun the process of teasing apart understandings of transparency in journalism, which encompass a number of different notions including:

  • Decisions. Explaining how and why relevant editorial decisions are made. This includes explaining any inclusion or exclusion criteria for any controversial decisions as well as explaining why a decision to anonymize a source was made. Selection is at the heart of bias, so to be more transparent about bias, journalists should always support their decisions about selecting or excluding information.
  • Lack or Uncertainty of Knowledge. Being upfront about acknowledging what questions stories do not answer (or cannot answer). When information is uncertain or unavailable, what assumptions have been made which affect interpretation?
  • Production Process. Providing evidentiary support to a story. News providers can use the Internet to provide primary source material in the form of databases, documents, methodologies, or audio and video of interviews. This can also include information about the nature and quality of the source used for information gathering. For instance, was the source of information a press conference, interview, press release, or quote from another media institution? What is the context and circumstance under which that information was gathered? Why is that source qualified to comment on the issue at hand? If multiple sources were used, how were they selected? At a different level of granularity process can also involve explaining to the audience how stories are developed, reported, edited, produced, and presented. In Ian’s terminology highly granular process transparency corresponds to the transparency of reference and at a less granular level to the transparency of construction.
  • Labeling. Advertisement and opinion needs to be marked as such to avoid confusion by news consumers.
  • Correction. Admitting and correcting mistakes and errors in a timely fashion.

Transparency is modulated by features such as:

  • Granularity. What is the appropriate scale to address transparency? Sometimes it is addressed at the level of the whole newsroom in the form of an editor’s column or blog about how decisions are made. Other times it should be addressed with more specificity, at the level of providing links to primary source material as well as providing context about the information sources in a particular story.
  • Degree. Even in a highly granular instantiation of transparency, not every statement likely needs that much attention to detail. Perhaps there are culturally accepted chunks of information that don’t need explicit citation, or are so widely known as to be considered wasting space if they are included. No one should expect that an article contain a complete list of explanations regarding sourcing or newsgathering, as this would be overwhelming for a consumer and perhaps impossible in print or video where space and time are at a premium.

Ultimately though the granularity and degree of transparency need to be audience centric. “What does my audience need to know to evaluate this information for itself? This includes explaining as much as is practical about how the news organization got its information.” (The Elements of Journalism. 94)

When considering bloggers-as-journalists the concept of transparency shifts a bit. Whereas the predominant notion of the journalist as objective and impartial reporter prevails in mainstream media, bloggers participating in journalistic activity tend to be transparent about their bias and background as well as what they have at stake. Bloggers have the freedom to express transparency in motives as well as transparency in process. For instance, bloggers often link to documents, sources and supporting evidence to buttress their own authority whereas oftentimes press articles are written without links, as if for print.

In a future post I will mix and match this understanding of transparency in journalism with the notions of mechanical transparency and system transparency I’ve talked about before.

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