Transparency and Quality Journalism

To the Forum Folha de Jornalismo, Sponsored by Folha de S. Paulo, Sao Paulo, Brazil on May 10, 2006

This topic is well chosen, since it implies that transparency might not be fully compatible with the requirements of quality journalism.

That is good to remember, since “transparency” has recently become one of those irreproachable terms of journalistic aspiration – along with fairness, accuracy, balance and public service – and if we’re not careful, before long it will be no easier to criticize the notion than it would be to suggest that journalists have a duty to fabricate stories and a professional obligation to defame the innocent.

Still, I’m going to offer a mild dissent to some of the misuses of transparency, while suggesting other areas in which the principle ought to be applied more aggressively than it now is.

Let’s recall that the “transparency” movement originated as a response to governmental and corporate corruption, and has targeted dishonest public and business officials who were enriching themselves at the expense of others and the public trust.

That kind of corruption has never been a key element of the critique advanced by those who want to apply “transparency” to the media. Instead, the media transparency initiative has largely aimed at exposing what its supporters believe is an ideological pollution, which systematically and secretly insinuates bias into the most influential organs of news and opinion, while masquerading behind a ritualized insistence on fairness, objectivity and public service.

The critique that these transparency advocates offer is not, however, to challenge errors of discourse and expose them as inaccurate, unfair or unconvincing. It is to mount ad hominem attacks on individual journalists, denouncing them for whatever evidence of predisposition can be uncovered (or invented,) and declaring that whatever journalism these people create is necessarily the product of unshakeable prejudice and bias.

In that respect, the point is not to hold media accountable, but make certain media discountable, by asserting that the journalism those media organizations provide is programmatic and ideological – is little better than propaganda – and cannot be trusted.

But “transparency” also has allies within media organizations, and among non-ideologically inclined critics. It has captured the imagination of media leaders, who are generally eager for solutions to a decline in public esteem that has harmed their business franchises. Let me characterize the thinking of transparency advocates as follows:

a. News organizations are needlessly and improperly secretive, and should be willing to submit to the same scrutiny that they demand of other institutions they cover.

That seems reasonable.

b. Submitting to such scrutiny, and practicing greater openness in regard to editorial practices, would help the media to overcome public doubts about their honesty and intentions, and reverse the decline in their credibility. This is the principal reason media industry management and ownership have embraced a limited notion of transparency: It seems to be good PR.

That also seems reasonable, but as I’ll argue, it does not appear to be true.

c. Submitting to such scrutiny would not only be good for the soul, but would actually improve the quality of the journalism that news organizations practice.

That seems dubious. Greater transparency, as I’ll argue, could actually harm quality journalism.

The first proposition is that news organizations have historically been far too resistant to legitimate disclosures about their practices.

I believe this is true. In the U.S. case, I can point to the glacial progress of the ombudsman movement itself, the historical opposition of the country’s most influential news organizations to press councils (which would adjudicate disputes involving aggrieved citizens), and the longstanding belief that what news organizations do is already sufficiently public.

My own background is as a business journalist, and no businesses I or my reporters covered in my 25-plus years as a journalist were ever as mindlessly, reflexively and even abusively resistant to criticism and scrutiny as the media. Not even lawyers were as bad.

Thanks in part to the Internet, some measure of transparency has been thrust upon the media. Disclosures about newsroom controversies, personnel fights and policy disputes are now routinely leaked through various back-channels to blogs and other web sites that monitor the media. In addition, we have a newborn corps of citizen-journalists. Some of them are political operatives, many of them independent; some are skilled journalists, some are good only at polemics. But they have repeatedly forced established news organizations to re-examine and sometimes repudiate their work. (Whether that’s because the work was truly flawed is open to question.)

And overall, the level of responsible media criticism has been getting progressively higher. There are more people offering commentary, their analyses are sharper and more sophisticated, and I think in response media have recognized to a greater degree than ever before that their deficiencies are a legitimate area of inquiry and an important area of public discussion.

But now, to the second point, that this openness is enabling the media to overcome doubts about their honesty and intentions, and is leading to a reversal in the much lamented decline in their credibility.

Maybe it should. We all like to think that virtue is rewarded. But I am skeptical. In fact, I have to say it seems apparent that the eagerness of media organizations to recognize and acknowledge their own shortcomings is accelerating declines in credibility and deepening the already deep well of cynicism about what the media do.

I am speaking primarily about the U.S. media, and I hope what I’m going to say is less true of media elsewhere, where I suspect that journalists have some measure of union protection and where disciplinary matters are handled with dignity and procedural consistency.

But in the U.S., in this new climate of transparency journalistic wrongdoing has become a new and powerful cultural artifact. The rogue journalist has become a recognizable social phenomenon. Where once plagiarists or fabricators would be quietly fired and their errors corrected, they are now denounced publicly with zeal and venom. Even minor wrongdoing, and actions that may not be wrong at all but might prompt doubts in the public’s mind about the rectitude of journalists, are met with harsh reprisals.

If media managers hope that the result of this crackdown is to create an image of an institution that is fiercely and uncompromisingly dedicated to ethical purity, I believe they have failed. Instead the widespread impression is of an institution that is overrun with liars, intellectual thieves and moral reprobates.

So if going public was ever supported as smart PR (and I’m not suggesting that should be the principal concern), my own sense is that the evidence is against it.

Moreover, people are being hurt in the name of this purification. Newsrooms are littered with the careers of journalists whose wrongdoing might have been forgiven in a less zealous age, but who have lost their jobs in a public ritual, as Napoleon said, pour encourager les autres, “to encourage the others.”

To the third and most important point, which is whether this transparency is actually improving journalism.

Here I’m going to suggest that it can, but it hasn’t yet. And it has the potential to cause real harm to good journalism.

The problem goes to the nature of journalism, which is practiced in a state of continual tension between private and public spheres. As public as the reporter’s orientation is, journalism relies on an untidy, creative and collaborative process of debate, argumentation and muted conflict. I think that is how journalists strive to understand the realities they are then supposed to represent to the public via news. That process needs a space and needs a degree of privacy.

I would strongly agree that the news media need to be held accountable publicly for the results of that process, especially when those results are badly flawed. But that is not the same as saying that the process itself should be routinely conducted in public view – as we now have increasingly, with at least one news organization proposing to webcast its editorial meetings. This suggests the newsroom as a promising new venue for Reality TV, but I fear that journalism cannot be practiced in a fishbowl.

(Nor does accountability oblige news organizations to react with shame and self-flagellation every time they determine they’ve made a mistake. The celebrated case of CBS News 60 Minutes, in which a longtime producer was fired and a prominent anchor forced out for a flawed report that was essentially correct, is a powerful case in point.)

Let me take this point further with the help of a familiar metaphor. Advocates of open government often say that sunshine is the best disinfectant. The meaning, obviously, is that corruption, like an infection, is less likely to occur if governance is conducted in public.

It’s a cliché, but an interesting one, because sunshine is a complex phenomenon and a rich metaphor. It’s also true that strong sunshine casts equally strong shadows. By that I mean that an unintended consequence of aggressive disclosure practices may be that participants are forced into more elaborate and more secretive techniques – including leaving important things unsaid – out of fear of subsequent embarrassment.

Another fact about strong sunshine is that it not only illuminates, but as a visual artist would tell you, it bleaches out subtleties and nuances that emerge only in soft, indirect light. Journalism is the product of a creative collaboration, in which a robust exchange of possibly unpalatable opinion is essential. When that exchange is suppressed, and opinions go unexpressed out of fear they’ll be shared with others, the news process suffers.

And to turn the metaphor on its side once more, not everything grows well in strong sunlight. Some plants need shade to flourish. And their flowers may nevertheless be brilliant.

I realize I’ve advanced some views that seem incompatible with the idea that the media should be a model institution in its commitment to be honest, forthright and accountable.

Accountability, or the reasonable demand that media explain errors and other features of their operations sufficiently to continually merit the public’s trust, will always require some measure of openness, a willingness to let the public we serve see and evaluate. It is a powerful weapon against conflicts of interest, which might otherwise stand between the journalist and his or her most important duty, public service. And indeed, with journalists now equipped with powerful technology that enables them to publish without the permission of their bosses, that openness is no longer merely optional, it is unavoidable.

I’m in favor of all that. But I’m suspicious of the PR motivation behind the transparency movement, and I’ve grown increasingly fearful of threats that it poses to a core media requirement, that of independence. The campaign for transparency has come not from some vast, undifferentiated “public,” but from groups with specific agendas who want to scrutinize newsroom deliberations minutely for evidence of a lack of sympathy with their agenda.

As long as we continue to insist on media independence, we’ll need to realize that not every cry for “transparency” is just, and not every proposal to open newsrooms to outside inspection is wise.

Let me close by suggesting that some of the less discussed avenues for transparency involve the business side of media operations, which pose unusual risks to principled journalism :

Is the public fully informed about the full range of business interests that media-owning companies have?

Can the public have confidence that the news and opinion they receive is not influenced by undisclosed financial entanglements? Should media organizations disclose instances of self-censorship?

Are news owners prepared to discuss with their readers their own funding decisions in regard to newsroom budgets, and share with them their thinking about which areas of public life they are covering and which they are ignoring?

As news operations move on-line, is the nature of the business model that sustains Internet news clear to the public, and are your readers aware of how much of their online activity is being monitored, recorded and supplied to advertisers?

So to conclude, I think the drive for transparency derives from a sincere desire for principled, ethical journalism. It also has the potential of becoming yet another obstacle in the path of dedicated journalists, who already have quite enough obstacles to contend with.

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