The future of journalism ethics: radical transparency

Journalists in the traditional media dealt with their ethics through a set of established rules and practices. We should not accept gifts or freebies, or allow a conflict of interest in stories we cover. We should be immunised from the influence of advertisers. We should separate commentary and news reporting and convey the views of all parties to a story.

The watchwords were objectivity and fairness, and these values were reflected in codes of conduct and newsroom rituals.

Such rules were developed in the pre-internet age, when there were far fewer media outlets and they tended to carry weight and authority, even though this was sometimes illusory. There was a daily news cycle and much more time to verify the facts, speak to all the parties and “complete” a story before publication or broadcast.

We gathered for the radio and television news at a set time in the evening, and it was packaged and “complete”. It was like a lecture, a one-way delivery of the news agenda. Audiences were passive recipients of news and our rules of engagement, our professional codes of conduct, were designed for this top-down world of contained and relatively slow information.

But that world is no more. News now flows constantly through multiple channels and we are being bombarded with it all the time. It is published and broadcast instantly, often before it has been verified and certainly not in finished, edited packages. We are hit by a cacophony of conflicting bits of half-baked information and we have to sort out the real news from the fake news, piece it together from multiple sources and weigh different versions of the same story against each other. There is no longer a dominant voice of authority in most of our media.

Our news flow has become more of a conversation than a lecture. The technology makes it relatively easy for many more of us to be producers of media, information and opinion and to become an active, participatory audience. Information flows in every direction, and not just top-down.

The barriers to entry have not fallen, but they are crumbling. The traditional barriers between advertisers and journalists are breaking down, as well as the divide between reporting and commentary.

In these changing conditions, our old set of rules and procedures are not holding up. Under pressure of time and cost, there is no longer the same compunction and capacity to check allegations before they are out in the public arena. Claims and assertions are quickly aired, and then only counter-balanced, or challenged, or even refuted, at a later point. Opinion and commentary flows into reporting, and we are seeing the “foxification” of television news in particular, named for the Fox channel in the US where there is little compunction about openly following a political agenda without pretence of balance or fairness.

The way the media works has changed, and the way journalists operate has changed, but the ethical and professional rules have stayed largely the same. The old rules were based on building trust between journalists and their audience, on a notion that there was a single truth to be relayed; now it needs to be built on encouraging informed scepticism, so that an active, participatory audience can assess credibility and authority and choose which of many versions and viewpoints to follow and believe.

To cope with this, journalists need to do more than enforce ethical codes more strongly, but there is a need to update the rules and practices and make them appropriate to this new world of instant, constant and fragmented news.

Fortunately, new media also gives us the tools to do this, and encourage fairness, balance and accuracy in journalism. The way forward lies in a commitment to a radical transparency – giving the audience the tools to understand how news is processed and selected, and the information that empowers them to assess its validity and credibility.

We see some examples of this already: stories are linked to original evidentiary documents on the internet, some editors blog on how and why they made difficult decisions, emails are provided and audiences asked to contribute to and comment on reports. The internet gives the space to allow for this, and general access to anyone who wants to know more and verify for themselves.

But this practice is haphazard. What is needed is the codification a set of rules and practices which set high and consistent standards for transparency in journalistic practice and make editors more accountable to their publics. If a reporter is covering abortion, should we know their own religious beliefs? If an editor has previously worked for a company that his staff is now writing about, should we know this? If a company which owns a television station also has investments in a casino, should the audience not be told? If a reporter is pulling out snippets from an important interview, should they not publish the full transcript online? If they cannot name a source, should they not be made to explain this fully on a blog? If they had to fudge their identity to get information, should they not have to declare and justify it?

And how far should it go? Guardian columnist George Monbiot published a personal Register of Interests in which he listed in full detail “all my sources of income, and any hospitality or gifts I receive (except from family and friends).” He pointed out that journalists had forced MPs and others to disclose their earnings, and were distrustful of those who refused. “I believe that everyone who steps into public life should be obliged to show on whose behalf they are speaking: in other words who is paying them, and how much. I would like to see journalists, like MPs, become subject to a mandatory register of interests,” he argued. His list is updated monthly and details even a £2.54 payment for Public Lending Rights. (My own declaration of interests can be found here.)

One American newspaper, The Spokesman-Review, started live webcasts of their twice-daily news meetings. “Our goal is to break down the walls of the old ‘fortress newsroom’,’ they said and give readers a chance to observe, even participate in, the newspaper’s decision-making.
“The theory behind this is simple: the more readers know about us and the why and hows of newspapering, the more credible we’ll become.”

This is an extreme case, probably excessive, but the principle is increasingly accepted among editors. The Poynter Institute in the US, a leading voice on journalistic practice, said in its online journalism ethics guidelines that “we must seek to display as much transparency as possible in regard to our processes and our relationships, both institutional and personal”.

Former Washington Post ombudsman, Geneva Overholser, said: “Fundamentally we must embrace transparency. It’s part of holding ourselves accountable to a public that has long wondered who’s watching the watchdogs.” But she added, “We’re finding our way in terms of how to apply it.”
New York Times executive editor Bill Keller said: “We’re clearly past the day when, even if we wanted to, we could do all of our work behind a kind of cloak of mystique. I know there are a lot of people in our business who feel nostalgic for the days when you weren’t called upon to justify your reporting methods or defend a line of reporting, but we are past that. I do think it’s important for us, and it’s good for us, more than that. It’s not just an obligation; it’s a healthy thing to let readers know how much work we put into things to get them right and to get them fair.” (In the interests of transparency, let me say I have drawn here on an article, Too Transparent? by Rachel Smolkin in American Journalism Review).

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange put it this way: “You can’t publish a paper on physics without the full experimental data and results. That should be the standard in journalism.” This was not possible in traditional media, but internet linkages make it feasible.

It seem obvious that journalists should make themselves accountable in the same way they expect of others. It would be petty to demand a privacy we do not allow of others engaged in the public arena.
But transparency is currently only a cursory issue in our codes and practices, and different media are upholding different standards. It is time for the Press Commission, the Press Council and the Broadcast Complaints Commission to take this up.

*This first appeared in Business Day, 31 Jan 2012

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