Sunday, 29 April 2012

The pitfalls of transparency in journalism

Many elements go into making a good story.
I had a blue-sky idea this morning as I was walking down the street past the houses, the trees and the driveways. Looking back a bit later, after I had finished breakfast, I saw that it has to do with transparency, which is something that I think most people would agree is a good thing. Take a restaurant for example. When I lived in Sydney I would go sometimes to a Brazilian restaurant in Petersham that has an open kitchen. From the counter you can see everything that goes on toward the preparation of food. Contrast this with a typical restaurant that just has a door going into the kitchen at the back of the eating area. Which one gives you more confidence? If you can see what goes on during the preparation of your food you'd probably be more comfortable eating what's served up. Restaurants have an image problem if they do not appear clean, and we occasionally read about one that gets a food safety fine and is named and shamed in the news.

So what about journalism? Transparency in journalism would surely be a good idea. Going back a few steps, my idea as I walked down the street was to add a new page to my website that would contain critiques of stories I have written. After all, I'm not perfect. A story I did 18 months ago might appear to me, now that I have more information on the topic, to be flawed in some way. But to talk about a story's shortcomings would not be enough to attain true transparency because there's also an editor involved, sometimes more than one. As a freelancer, my editor will possibly rewrite some of the story, or ask questions that need answers in order to bring the story up to scratch. If I put up a page containing self critiques then my readers could see how the story came into being. What prompted it? Whose idea was it? How did you find the experts you talked to? Did the lede (the story opening) change after you submitted it?

But then I thought about how my editors would take this idea. I am certain that they would universally object to the idea. I would be talking publicly about a critical relationship that enables me to do my work. The idea would alienate my editors and I would get no more work.

So what about a third-party website dedicated to disclosing the way that stories get written? It could accept submissions from journalists, who would remain nameless, and the pieces that ended up on the site would not name the publication, the topic (maybe), or the names of people interviewed. Would that work? How many journalists would opt to submit a story critique to such a website? My guess is, not many.

Journalists have an image problem, however. Mostly they accept it and just get on with the job. Within themselves they know that they are participating in an activity that is essential to the functioning of a democracy. But surveys show that journalists have a very low popularity ranking. One recent survey put the profession lower than a legal clerk in terms of desirability, which is complete nonsense. Journalists mainly enjoy their work. They get to talk with interesting people. They get to contribute to important debates in their communities. They get to question, think, and propose suggestions, and they get paid to do this.

Nevertheless it's unquestionable that that low popularity hinders the journalist in his or her work. When you telephone someone you catch the hardening of the voice when it comes to asking to talk with so-and-so. That hardening of the voice might mean, "I suspect you're going to write a story that's negative in respect of my organisation, so I'm wary." There's the standard response from government departments: "We don't allow interviews with departmental officers but if you send an email we'll try to answer your questions." Departmental policy universally prohibits officers from talking direclty with the media, and all requests for quotes must go through the media office. Or there are the requests for comment that simply go unanswered; people just don't even bother telling you that no comment will be provided. Slam!

It's a bind. It's unlikely that I would dissect the story production process as far as to talk about who wrote what, what bits were given prominence at the editor's request, and what bits were simply cut. But I will think about how I can offer critiques of my stories because I think that community engagement and dialogue is important. Of course, I could be fooling myself. Maybe nobody would bother to visit such a page on my website and spend time to read through my lucubrations. But I think it's an interesting idea. What think you?


Resuna said...

My experiences, as someone talking to journalists, are touched on in this old article:

David Horton said...

Yeah, nice thought Matt. Another food analogy that occurs is the list of ingredients on a jar. I doubt people would revisit a story - in the same way newspapers bury corrections and apologies on page 20.

I also think the "protect your sources" credo now covers a multitude of sins, however desirable indeed necessary it is in many circumstances in many countries. But I wonder about sone kind of a disclosure process attached at least to major stories and opinion pieces, along the lines of the "no animals were harmed in the making of this movie" disclaimer.

Like "I certify that all [number] sources for this story were in a position to know the facts described. That I have not altered facts as given to me. That I was not influenced in the writing of the story by vested interests. That I have cross-checked each fact given with at least one other source" etc etc.

Dunno - bit like a journalistic Hippocratic Oath I guess.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't the Guardian doing something like this?

Adeline Teoh said...

Maybe less 'transparency' and more a record of process. Transparency doesn't mean anything unless the person is educated enough to know what all the elements involved entail and how they influence the final outcome (using David's analogy, ingredients on a jar may tell you what's in a product but not what effect it will have on your diet).

Process can be educative. Saying something like 'I interviewed Ms A because ... ', 'I left out this quote because ... ', or 'my editor swapped two paragraphs around, giving my article a slightly different emphasis' gives some context to the process of journalism. I take this concept from visual arts where a process diary can be very informative to contextualise an artwork.