Making news transparent is not about kitemarking

with 4 comments

Flattering as it is to be referred to in the Reuters Institute’s new publication, ‘What’s happening to our news?‘, I better clear up a confusion before it gets fixed in people’s minds.

The Transparency Initiative, which we (the Media Standards Trust) and Tim Berners-Lee’s Web Science Research Initiative, are leading, is most definitely NOT about digital kitemarking. It is about digital labelling – or ‘meta-marking’. Though initially this might not sound so very different, believe me, the two are chalk and cheese. I know because I’ve spent far too much time – and too many sleepless nights – thinking about it this past year.

Digital kitemarking will not – IMHO – work. Why? Here’s just a few reasons:

(a) It’s top down – like most 20th century media models it assumes some sort of central control. If we’ve learnt anything from the digital revolution it must be the – welcome – dissolution of this control;
(b) It’s not specific enough – no individual kite mark would be able to both provide a guaranteed mark of quality, and at the same time be flexible enough to work for different types of journalism and different types of journalists;
(c) Gatekeeping would be overwhelming – vetting each new individual or organisation that wanted to apply the kitemark would be extremely time consuming and onerous (and on what basis would you do it?);
(d) Untenable risk management – a few high profile failures could undermine the whole system (errr… BBC, Jonathan Ross, Gaza);
(e) Lack of industry acceptance – why would I (insert BBC, Reuters, The Sun etc. here) let someone else ‘kitemark’ my work? The brand should be the kitemark of quality;

(f) Impractical to police – it would be very hard (an understatement) to stop people applying a label, even if not ‘permitted’ to (requires combination of honour system and legal sanction).

On the other hand, digital labelling, or meta-marking, could work very well because it is:

(a) Descriptive – it describes the origins of the content, not whether it’s any good (ie. who wrote it, who it was written on behalf of, when it was first published etc.);
(b) Democratic - it distributes participation, enabling anyone who is producing content online (e.g. a journalist) to describe what it is rather than rely on a third party to do it for them. In this sense it is  ‘bottom-up’ rather than top down;
(c) Empowering - once labelled, there is information within the content itself that provides the reader with what they need to assess it (rather than some sort of ‘stamp of approval’ from someone they’ve probably never heard of);
(d)  Discourages gaming - by making the information descriptive rather than judgmental, you dilute the incentive to game the system;
(e) Removes
monitoring difficulties
–  by making the information highly visible (to machines as well as to people), mistakes and fraud are very easy to spot;
(f)  Adaptable and flexible – the criteria can be applied to many different forms of information and allow each to be distinguished from one another (as well as from other content);
(g) Extendible – the scheme is easily scaleable – it is possible for millions of people to use it successfully without the system breaking or becoming overly bureaucratic. It could be extended to work with other suppliers of information and content, e.g. should the government want to label its content, it should be able to work in a similar and compatible way.

Digital labelling is not about telling people what’s good and what’s bad, it’s about telling people what is. Kind of like the ingredients on the side of a food packet. It’s like giving information on the web a postcode so people can find it more easily and, when they’ve found, know a little more about where it came from. This is very very different from kitemarking, with its implications of top-down editorial judgment.

To see how digital labelling can work, and how it could help journalists their content, see the (very beta) development site at

Written by Martin Moore

January 26th, 2009 at 11:10 am

4 Responses to 'Making news transparent is not about kitemarking'

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  1. So the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has misrepresented the Media Standards Trust?That poses a pretty convincing argument against digital kitemarking: who regulates the regulators?

    Matthew Cain

    26 Jan 09 at 2:09 pm

  2. To be fair, it’s a good report and nowhere does it say explicitly that the transparency initiative is about digital kitemarking – but some people seem to have drawn that conclusion from it so I just wanted to clarify

    Martin Moore

    26 Jan 09 at 2:23 pm

  3. Hi Martin, I’m trying to zoom in on your worthy project a little through the clouds to the science – the premise of content and source labelling sounds great! It sounds ethical and it makes sense to make a more joined up world. However, assuming this becomes feasible and a system can be divised, what (apart from legislation or heavy pressure on compliance – from who?) would be the reason for authors/publishers to go along with it? Would it make their life easier for instance, or their reader’s life more interesting? And also, wouldn’t adopting the methodology inherent in the technology, ie adopting a ‘standard’, mean that they would have to meet certain criteria anyway, which would amount to the same as being stamped with a kitemark of approval in that case.

    James Williams

    29 Jan 09 at 8:08 am

  4. Hi James,Good questions. I think the key here is to emphasise the – in many ways – very modest ambition of the initiative. It aims to make visible and consistent information about information (news in particular) – much of which is already there (e.g. author, time first published etc.). The incentive for the journalist/author is that their work will then be identified accurately, and that people can search for it more intelligently (e.g. ‘I only want to see articles by this person published between these dates’). The other incentive is that, because the information is there already, once newscredit is integrated to the content management system, the journalist doesn’t have to do anything extra – the information is tagged automatically. On your final point, I’d say there are standards, and there are ‘standards’ (not meaning to be flippant). What I mean is, you have ways of describing food ingredients (which then go on the side of a food packet), and then you have things like ‘Soil Association Organically Approved’. The transparency initiative is about the former NOT the latter. We’re entirely focused on the ‘ingredients’ bit – which should then allow other people to do all sorts of helpful and interesting stuff.

    Martin Moore

    29 Jan 09 at 9:28 am

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