If the news industry is going to explore transparency as an alternative to the “journalistic objectivity” claim to credibility (and yes, as a matter of fact, we are), then this big idea is going to have to confront a series of small questions. Thank goodness we can begin answering them.
What's wrong with objectivity?
First, we all need to agree on something important. Scientific objectivity is an experimental condition that limits observation so that the collected data will be identical for all observers (and, if managed properly, repeatable in multiple trials). Journalistic objectivity is an assumed perspective that includes a set of variable practices, but is essentially a subjective claim to credibility.
The problem with that credibility claim is that Americans don't believe it. A Gallop poll in September found that 57 percent of Americans say they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly. That's a record low for this Gallop question, and it reflects a decades-long declining trend that others have noticed as well.
So other than the fact that journalistic objectivity is a claim to authority that cannot be supported objectively and isn't accepted by a majority of Americans, what's wrong with it?
How about its poor performance in terms of educating and informing readers/viewers/users? Despite unprecedented access to news information, studies show the American public was woefully misinformed about important facts during the 2010 elections.
This is not a coincidence. An artificial claim to credibility that requires journalists to present “both sides” of a story with equal weight, even when one of those perspectives can be factually disproven doesn't serve the public interest. Instead, it acts as a free license for partisan manipulation of the press, and the manipulators are well aware of this fact (even if the press is not).
For instance, regardless of the ultimate validity of global warming theory, there is no doubt about the strength of the scientific consensus that surrounds the data. Yet Americans as a group continue to underestimate the extent of that consensus – a direct result of poorly applied standards of journalistic objectivity and partisan media propaganda by an organization that famously claims to be "fair and balanced."
So what is the claim to credibility for a transparency-based approach to journalism?
There is probably not one transparency-based approach, but for the sake of the discussion, let's say that a transparent news organization begins by making smaller claims to credibility. Journalistic objectivity is a black-box claim to universal credibility. Transparency journalism acknowledges the limits of individuals, organizations and what can be known under specific circumstances. Instead of bold claims based on dubious, priest-like denial of the self, transparency journalism offers goals and processes that continuously work toward developing and understanding facts, perspectives and contexts.
What should transparency reveal?
Whatever might reasonably be considered to influence the way people and organizations process, evaluate and present new information. This begins with the goals of the organization (if you are representing a partisan, geographical, class-based or niche interest, say so) but also extends to the relevant interests and influences of individual executives, reporters and editors.
Partisan involvements, obviously, even though most journalists won't have any of significance.
I start with politics not because it's the most-significant issue in developing transparency systems, but because it's the top-of-mind credibility issue for most news consumers.
So if a reporter has worked for a political candidate, or donated money to a campaign of political group, these are obvious things to reveal if – and this is a big if – the reporter is working in a role or beat in which political influences are relevant. A restaurant critic or a gardening writer probably doesn't need to reveal political activities (so long as their coverage stays clear of political topics), just as political and government reporters probably don't need to reveal what restaurants they've worked for, or whether they own stock in a compost company.
Donations and volunteer work are verifiable topics, but what about attitudes and influences?
The goal of personal transparency should be to make it possible for interested parties to learn relevant information about the people involved in reporting and shaping the stories that concern them. A sports fan may legitimately want to know what school a college football beat writer attended, or what MLB team ballcap he wears when he mows the lawn. That same sportsfan is probably not all that interested in what the sportwsriter thinks about John Maynard Keynes. But the reverse is true if the reporter in question is assigned to the business desk and covers The Federal Reserve Board.
Defining the reasonable limits of privacy and transparency will be an ongoing issue for any journalistic organization that adopts this approach, and one way of managing this challenge may be to ask journalists to write and publicly maintain a personal manifesto.
Unlike formal transparency that defines a journalist solely by his or her activities and affiliations, a personal manifesto is a collection of nuanced statements that define what someone believes to be true and valuable. Without a statement of beliefs and values, readers will simply infer from reportable particulars a set of beliefs that may not come close to representing the complexities of a journalist's actual beliefs. In the same way that a person can be a registered Republican and still believe in a progressive tax structure, so too can a sportswriter graduate from the University of Alabama and cheer for the Florida Gators.
The Xarker Manifesto is my expansive experiment with this concept from 2005, and while it delves into all sorts of areas that the average reporter might not need to consider, it reflects my personal belief that all topics are related. I produced it as a founding document for this blog because I disliked having conversations in which I had to dispute beliefs that others had erroneously projected upon me. Whatever its value as a document, the manifesto has been highly useful for clarifying the record on what I actually believe to be true.
So is a writer supposed to append a manifesto on every story?
Of course not. The transparency approach says that your relevant influences and attitudes should be easy to find should someone want to go looking for them. That's all.
In practical terms, this means that working journalists should maintain an online professional profile page, and that anyone who seeks that page should be able to easily find answers to their relevant questions about that person. It also means that supervisors and employees should have a constant working understanding of what kinds of information should be considered relevant, and everyone should have an expectation that the things a person reveals are factually correct.
What about information that speaks to a reporter's character or reveals personal information?
While a reporter's sexuality, relationship history or adolescent criminal background may reasonably provide limited insights into his or her character, the decision to make public any of this information should be a decision left solely to the journalist. Additionally, news organizations may counsel journalists that certain types of information should not be revealed as part of a companywide policy.
Enough about what gets revealed. Aren't you really just saying that reporters and editors are supposed to be putting opinion – or “point of view” – into their coverage?
This is the most important question I'll answer today, and the answer is, absolutely not.
The trust-via-transparency argument doesn't change the goals of journalism. We seek to provide reliable, high-quality information that helps people understand and engage the world around them. For that information to be useful and trustworthy, it needs to meet certain standards of quality and process. With few exceptions, the opinion of the reporter is not the valuable thing that's being produced.
But reporters who are sincerely trying to reach an accurate and meaningful understanding of a subject and communicate it don't need to express an opinion to reveal a bias.In fact, I would argue that the more knowledgeable and experienced that reporter is, the more valuable that bias becomes.
For intance, knowing what I know about global warming science, I will write stories that place greater weight on statements endorsed by the scientific consensus than on conflicting statements from fringe scientists at think-tanks funded exclusively by the oil and coal industries. I will not give “both sides” arbitrary (and artificially) equal weight, because I am the author of the piece and I have revealed in my profile how I evaluate these questions.
Someone reading that profile may choose to challenge my reporting on the grounds that it unfairly downgrades the opinion of global warming skeptics, but they won't be able to claim that I'm covertly manipulating public opinion. I am overtly using my experience, knowledge and reason to give the relevant, reliable facts to my readers, sans artificially balanced misinformation.
Now, in my personal case, I'm skeptical about the predictive accuracy of complex mathematical models that describe chaotic systems. I may choose to include that opinion in my profile, because that opinion will likely cause my coverage of global warming developments to be more conservative than reporters with greater faith in those modeling techniques.
But the thing to understand here is that my opinion about the science involved doesn't add a shred of value to the subject, because my opinion isn't a qualified opinion.
In other words, the value of revealing relevant opinions in my transparency manifesto is that this accounts for the biases in my work. I put my opinions in my profile, where they are relevant, so that I can keep them out of my reporting on subjects where I lack a qualified opinion.
So you're saying that transparency journalism should never express opinions?
No. I'm saying that transparency journalism enables journalists to structure their coverage in ways that seek a more accurate and responsive representation of facts than the artificial “balance” of traditional journalistic objectivity.
If a news organization sets a goal of representing the conservative view of life and politics, such as Fox News Channel or Newsmax, then it should say so and explain, in its transparency documents, how it evaluates certain types of information.
But not all news organizations will choose to represent a partisan viewpoint. They're probably much more likely to represent a geographical bias (news of interest to South Carolinians) or a niche identity bias (news for middle-class African-American women who are single and Christian). So long as these goals and influences are explicitly expressed in the organization's transparency documents, it shouldn't be necessary to insert them as opinions in individual news items.
These organizations are free to express opinions, or to ask their reporters to express opinions. But that's a choice, not a requirement, and it's hard to believe that most organizations will seek this path.
When should a reporter express an opinion, then?
That's a question that should be answered with another question: What are that reporter's qualified opinions?
For instance, if you ask me for an opinion on the latest results from the hunt for the Higgs Boson, I don't have the background to offer a qualified opinion. That's why we go to physicists instead of biologists when we're writing stories about supercollider experiments. On the other hand, I was raised on a counter-culture commune as a child in the 1970s, and if you assigned me a story on the communes that continue to operate today, my personal experience and opinions might improve the quality of the story I could present.
This becomes particularly interesting in the fields of politics and government, where experienced reporters are often far more expert on the ins-and-outs of state legislatures and local political parties than the freshmen lawmakers they're interviewing. A reporter with 30 years experience covering campaigns in Virginia may have a much more honest and revealing opinion of what a particular event portends than some novice candidate for a Richmond State Senate seat.
The first challenge, then, is for organizations to define what counts as a qualified opinion. After that it's a matter of understanding how and when those opinions can add to the public's understanding. If all an opinion adds is noise, then we should probably leave it out.
What about editorial decision-making?
For the most part, it should take place in public view.
You mean livestreaming video of editorial budget meetings?
Maybe. If not live streams, perhaps it would be worthwhile to post links to unedited video of an editorial meeting that took place several hours earlier. The point is not to make decision-making more difficult or to unilaterally hamstring an organization's competitive edge, but to shine light on a secretive process that has enormous influence on public understanding.
Too many journalism organizations make choices that would be indefensible if they had to be held up to public scrutiny. By offering up our deliberations for review and scholarship, we will likely move toward a more civic-minded editorial philosophy.
Won't that mean that editors will grandstand in meetings?
Some probably will. Some already do.
Won't that mean that editors will stop speaking candidly about topics because of liability and public relations concerns?
I think it means that those discussions will take place outside of budget meetings.
How is that transparency if you're just pushing the embarrassing decisions into other venues?
It's a start. And let's be clear: Transparency should be used as a tool for building trust and quality, not a blanket requirement for all our activities. Transparency for transparency's sake is exhibitionism.
So yes, talk in public about why you're putting that story on 3B for the print edition while you're pushing it to the top of the website this hour. Let people see how you decided that today was the day to move a business story about recession fears to the top of your report. But don't talk in public about a rape story in a way that would identify a victim or an unindicted suspect, or tip off the subject of a six-month investigative project on criminal behavior at the tax assessor's office.
Transparency is not a magic bullet, and it's certainly no substitute for basic human intelligence.
You've worked for newspapers and news websites. You know that top editors sometimes represent the unspoken and narrow agendas of ownership groups, publishers, boards of directors, etc. How can they possibly do their jobs if they're forced to manage in public?
Their jobs will have to change. And a publisher who wants to continue to furtively influence coverage will have to change as well if he or she chooses to go the transparency route.
Then why on earth would anyone choose this alternative?
Because in a competitive media ecosystem, if people trust my reporting more than yours, I stand to win our competition. That's a powerful motivator.