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Transparency in journalism – a new meme?

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There’s momentum gathering around the importance of transparency to the future of journalism.
I’m no expert on how ideas move from the margins to the mainstream. Or indeed how or when an idea becomes a ‘meme’ and starts to take on a life of its own. But I get a strong sense that transparency is gaining traction in journalism; that it is changing from a theoretical construct to a practical requirement.
Three academics, one from New Cross, one from Dortmund, and one from Karlstad, each gave fascinating and compelling presentations about the growing importance of transparency in news at the Future of Journalism conference in Cardiff last week.
‘[E]stablishing new standards of transparency could help protect professional reporting in the new, networked era’ Angela Phillips, from Goldsmiths (New Cross), argued in ‘Transparency and the new ethics of journalism’. Klaus Meier (University of Dortmund) put it even more strongly, suggesting that ‘at the centre of the reasons for the demand for transparent journalism is the concern for the survival of journalism, because journalism is under threat from a crisis of credibility and a changed role in the digital age’. And Michael Karlsson from Karlstad, Sweden cited specific examples of news organizations that had experimented with aspects of transparency.
I’m biased of course, since we (the Media Standards Trust) have been leading a non-profit ‘Transparency Initiative’ in news for about 18 months, joint funded by the MacArthur Foundation and the Knight Foundation, which took a big step forward in July when we launched ‘Value Added News’ and the Associated Press announced they would be integrating hNews – the Value Added News data format – into their articles from November.
But there is a compelling intellectual case for transparency, as these academics emphasised:
It enables differentiation – in the digital world, where information is infinitely and infinitely replicable, being transparent about provenance and sourcing helps distinguish journalism from other content on the web
It puts a premium on original reporting – if you know when a piece was first published and by who, then it’s a lot easier to see who got their first – even if the story is replicated ad infinitum. ‘If every time an original story is produced it is properly credited and points traffic back to the source, then it will also, albeit at the margins, help to stimulate greater differentiation of content’ (Phillips)
It incentivizes journalists to behave differently – ‘‘If the news pool is to be retained (even in its current much reduced form) then news organisations need to have some incentive to interrogate and investigate at every level of society (not just when there is a big story to cover) and journalists need to feel some kind of investment in standards which set them apart from casual users of the internet’ (Phillips).
It demystifies journalistic practice and clarifies journalistic values (from Meier) – by making clear, as much as possible, where a journalist got their story from and how they put it together
It enables evaluation – ‘Transparency permits quality evaluations by the audience and thus can strengthen credibility (Neuberger, 2005, p. 327)’
It reinforces trust – most news organizations are still relying too much on their news ‘brand’ to ensure trust. Yet in a digital environment the brand is necessarily diluted – partly because there is so much more content on news sites (and much of it UGC), partly because people tend to come via search engines not, as in the print version, from the front page. Therefore, as Meier writes, ‘evidence of trustworthiness must be given repeatedly: Every newsroom, and basically also every single story must show why they deserve more trust than dozens or even hundreds of others on the same topic’ (Meier)
It encourages diversity (from Phillips) – by creating a premium around independent, original reporting
It helps enable networked journalism – ‘If the ‘public’ is to act as a corrective it needs to be aware of where the information originated’ (Phillips).
There are lots of different ways to make news more transparent. You can make clear the process by which news is gathered and published. You can show people editorial decision making in practice (e.g. filming editorial conferences). You can open up the whole method by which news is produced to involve the public. Karlsson called this last one ‘participatory transparency’, in which people are given an opportunity to participate in the news process (as additional sources, as critics, as monitors, as promoters); as opposed to ‘disclosure transparency’, in which a news organization / journalist discloses how they put a news piece together.
There are also obstacles to making news transparent. Meier cited three: that it may be considered ‘a waste of time, energy and other precious resources’, that ‘too much information about a complex body of source material could divert attention “from what is really important”’, and that it might even represent “a potential threat to autonomy” of a newsroom. He could have added a fourth, that news organisations are often extremely anxious not to give anything away that might help their competition.
These obstacles have prevented transparency having much impact so far. As this research showed, transparency is still a minority pursuit. This is also because there is little tradition of transparency, particularly in European newsrooms. Historically it has been considered a sign of vulnerability for news organizations not to give an impression that they know everything.
But transparency is the logical way to go, and listening to these academics this is starting to become accepted. According to Meier:
‘It is not just newsrooms in different parts of the world with different journalistic traditions that are talking increasingly about transparency and experimenting with it in their daily work (Deggans, 2006; Smolkin, 2006; Elia, 2008). Journalism scholars are also focusing more and more on this topic: It has been incorporated into textbooks on media ethics (Craft & Heim, 2009; Meier, 2009a), is the subject of conferences (Ziomek, 2005) or of theoretical approaches (Plaisance, 2007). Especially in articles dealing with the changes in journalistic roles and values brought about by the Internet’ (Meier)
Transparency is not the Holy Grail of news. Making clear where your article came from doesn’t matter much if the article is no good. Nor can transparency solve the economic crisis in funding original journalism. But it must be a pre-requisite to finding a sustainable solution.
The three presentations / articles have not yet been published. They are ‘Transparency and the new Ethics of Journalism, by Angela Phillips (Goldsmiths); ‘Transparency in Journalism: Credibility and trustworthiness in the digital future’ by Klaus Meier (University of Dortmund) and ‘Rituals of Transparency: Evaluating online ne
ws outlets use of transparency rituals in the US, UK and Sweden’ by Michael Karlsson (Karlstad University).
You can read more about the Media Standards Trust’s Transparency Initiative, and see how to make your news more transparent, at

Written by Martin Moore

September 14th, 2009 at 4:07 pm

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