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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Transparency in the news

What does transparency in news coverage mean to you? It’s a prickly word in today’s newsrooms and Scott M. Libin, of The Poynter Institute just explained why.

In his piece, Trying Transparency he writes how he associated transparency with thinness, shallowness, not something to which most journalists aspire. But he has since been converted. He describes transparency in the reporting process as viewing the inner workings of a clock. It’s about process and timing and placement and context. And all of these things help readers better understand news coverage.

It’s a common assumption of news folks to think they don’t have to explain how or why they cover news. They are the experts and they dictate what is news. I’ve heard reporters suggest that they should do away with focus groups or reader surveys because readers aren’t in a position to know what they don’t know. Somehow reporters are?

That’s one of the biggest fallacies of the modern traditional media. Believing we know what readers should know is arrogant at best and borderline negligent.

Sure reporters have a feel for their beat that the average Joe or Jane lacks; and certainly editors develop a finely tuned sense of discernment when it comes to news decisions. But they don’t — and can’t — know it all.

Journalism is a participatory sport. The reporter may be running with the ball (story), but that toss came from a quarterback (concerned citizen/government official/cop) with a play (tip). And then there are the fellow players (copyeditors and mid—level editors) on the field who help to shape and finesse the run (reporting). Meanwhile the referee (editor) makes the call as to where the ball (story) gets placed. In the end the fans (readers) will either cheer or boo the efforts.

But make no mistake; they have a stake in the game.

Libin includes this example about the need for transparency:

In 2003, Joel Sappell was the Los Angeles Times senior entertainment editor, overseeing coverage of the business of Hollywood. Sappell also held the title of deputy business editor. He edited the newspaper's investigation of allegations that Arnold Schwarzenegger, then a candidate for governor, had a history of groping women. The investigative team was ready to publish just days before the election -- which raised a host of new concerns about a story that was already complicated enough.

"The old model was, you don’t drop any bombshells on the eve of the election," says Sappell. Now assistant managing editor of the Times and executive editor of, Sappell is also a 2006 Poynter Ethics Fellow. He says California’s 2003 special election did not operate on a traditional timeline. So, "because of the compressed amount of time, we decided to run it," Sappell told me. "We knew it would be controversial."
They were right.

"In hindsight, because of all the questions we knew would arise… I think we underestimated the backlash," Sappell believes now. "I think we should have had an editor’s note that explained the timing, explaining why we broke with journalistic conventions in not breaking big stories on the eve of elections, and our methodology."

At the time, Sappell says he and his fellow editors felt the work should speak for itself, and that editor's notes could seem defensive and apologetic. Sappell says now he's changed his mind.

"I am a complete convert… I've come to believe a lot in explaining to readers our process," he told me. "I am a true believer in providing context for our large undertakings."

(Bold is mine.)

There’s so much that readers don’t know about the decision-making process in newsrooms. So maybe there are those who don’t want to see the sausage being made. That’s fine, but recognize that certain stories require more transparency. And it doesn’t matter if you’re the Podunk Gazette or the Washington Post. The public is highly cynical about our work, our ethics, our motive and our process. Maybe that's unfair, but it's reality. Mainstream journalism cannot afford to keep making the assumption that its work “speaks for itself.”


Chris Thompson said...

Nice post. It's a lesson I learned 20 years ago during a summer internship at a newspaper when I had to try to explain to my aunt what I did for a living. It helped me understand that the newspaper world is a mystery to anyone on the outside. Journalists owe it to readers to clear up some of the mystery.

Wendy Hoke said...

Thanks for the kind words, Chris, at the hat tip. Your blog is very interesting. I'll be sure to add it to my must-read list.

Wendy Hoke said...

Make that AND the hat tip. Typing too fast at a late hour.

Jeff Hess said...

Shalom Wendy,

I think that if I were still a working dead-tree media editor, one of the first steps towards transparency I would take would be to publish my reporters’ notes and unedited copy online.

While I would tell my reporters that off-the-record comments were to be taken only in extreme cases, I would black out such comments, if they occurred, in the online version. That way the readers would know that there were things said off-the-record that I'm not telling them.

Telling the reader about the process is good, but it's still filtering. The editor chooses what parts of the process to reveal and what parts to keep hidden.

Like objectivity, transparency only exists in the abstract. But we can do all that is possible to approach that abstract.