Too Transparent?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   April/May 2006

Too Transparent?   

It’s healthy for news organizations to be much more open about their decision making than they have been in the past. But in response to relentless pounding from bloggers and other critics, is the transparency movement getting out of hand?

By Rachel Smolkin
     


Have the news media gone New Age? You can almost hear the hot air seeping from our bloated egos, replaced by groveling apologies and overwrought explanations to our fleeing readers: Let me tell you why I ran that story, made that decision, chose that lead, buried that other story that you, our readers (and bloggers and ideologues and cranks), thought was more important. You can almost see the self-assured cigar smoke dissipating, the Wild Turkey neglected in favor of...healing crystals?

Or, as the healing crystals are known in our business, "transparency." A chorus of media critics, AJR among them, has seized on openness as the panacea to our sullied reputations, the antidote to those cheaters Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley, the tonic to our arrogance that cyberspace loves to hate.

Explaining is all the rage, and that's largely a good thing. From the vice president's hunting calamity to the federal government's communications collapse during Hurricane Katrina, the media demand answers to uncomfortable questions. When officials stonewall, duck questions or try to change the subject, their reticence tends to ignite a media swarm that lasts until someone has apologized and accepted responsibility. It's unfair, even hypocritical, for the media to try to play by different rules, to ignore public demands for accountability that we would insist on from anyone else.

But what exactly should news organizations be open about? Are we trying too hard to explain ourselves, being too needy, wasting too much time on the therapist's couch, with a motley lot of bloggers, partisans and pundits as our Dr. Phil? Is more transparency always better, or are there dangers lurking within an otherwise healthy movement? In short, is the pressure for explaining spiraling out of control?

"We used to think that there was virtue in not focusing on ourselves, in treating the gathering of the news like the manufacturing of any product," says former Philadelphia Inquirer Executive Editor and ex-Poynter Institute President James M. Naughton. "If you go buy a car, you don't care how they made it. You care whether it's safe and attractive and maybe whether it gets good gas mileage. We used to feel it was self-indulgent to focus on how a story gets done."

In that bygone era, of course, there was no Matt Drudge, no Jim Romenesko, no legions of astonishingly well-organized online partisans ready to pounce. "All you had to contend with was the alternative paper doing kind of a snotty piece every so often," Naughton says. "Now there is some perceived virtue in some transparency, but we may well have gone overboard."

Alex S. Jones, director of Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, believes the shift toward transparency has been driven by changing "expectations as much as anything else.... A lot of media criticism essentially is a demand for transparency and trying to get at not just the 'who, what, when, where,' but the why of journalism decision making."

Jones says expectations have changed in part because of the blogosphere, which demands a rapid and open exchange of information. "The fuel was added to the fire with several big scandals," he says, "and the response of most news organizations was to try to come clean." High-profile ombudsmen also have insisted on increasing openness from the news organizations they monitor.

One former Washington Post ombudsman, Geneva Overholser, describes the media's struggle with transparency this way: "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 adds, "We're finding our way in terms of how to apply it." The media are "embarking on this notion of transparency at a moment where every bit of information about journalism reverberates all over the Web," which can create the misconception that the sins under discussion are new and that the media are becoming more ethically challenged by the minute.

"There can be too much soul-baring," says Overholser, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism's Washington bureau and former editor of the Des Moines Register. "We need to be careful about covering ourselves just as we're careful about covering other people." Transparency is "not endless self-examination; it's not navel-gazing; it's not gossiping about ourselves. I think it's essential, and I very much welcome transparency, but I think we need to recognize that we're still getting our sea legs."

Is there no longer an alternative to media transparency? Is there any place in this climate for a news outlet to ignore demands for answers, to assert, simply, "Our work speaks for itself"?

Probably not.

In this unsettled era, no paper has struggled more publicly with the question of transparency than the New York Times.

"I think the Times has exhibited more courage than any single institution in this new era of transparency, and I very much admire that, and it's not surprising that they would have some missteps along the way," says Overholser, a former Times editorial writer. But she feels the paper has swung between excessive and insufficient transparency.

It devoted 7,102 words – two full pages of the Sunday paper – to its May 11, 2003, exposι of disgraced reporter Blair's misdeeds, and two additional pages and 6,439 more words to correcting errors in his articles. But the Times offered little explanation of why it delayed for a year its December 16, 2005, bombshell report on the National Security Agency's eavesdropping on Americans without court-approved warrants. The story itself contained this cryptic sentence: "After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting." Times Executive Editor Bill Keller offered slightly more information about the timing in two statements issued the day the article appeared in the paper.

The Times' reticence on the NSA story has drawn fire from media critics and from Byron Calame, the paper's public editor. In a January 1 column, Calame accused Keller and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. of "stonewalling" for refusing to answer his questions about the story and asserted at "the very least, The Times should have told readers in the article why it could not address specific issues."

In an interview, Keller told me he "declined to belabor the back story" of the NSA report for several reasons, including a desire not to distract from the story itself. "I would hate for that to get obscured behind the forensics of how the story was composed," he says. "The bottom line is we published an important story. The fact that we held the story for all those months without anyone else getting onto it demonstrates what a hard story it was to get."

The Times editor says promises of confidentiality also restricted how much he could say. "In this whole forensics exercise, I've got one hand tied behind my back," he says. "There didn't seem to be much point in getting into this exercise if I couldn't really tell our story. Like most stories, it's complicated, and I couldn't do justice to the complications without violating confidentiality."

When Keller became executive editor in July 2003 in the wake of the Blair humiliation, he thought his paper "could profit from a bit of glasnost." That also was the view of the Siegal Committee, a group of 25 staffers and three outside journalists led by Assistant Managing Editor Allan Siegal that investigated the newsroom's culture. The panel, which recommended creating the public editor position, concluded in part that "engaging our critics could help correct our image as aloof," Keller says. More than two-and-a-half years later, he still believes that. "If you don't explain yourself, you just invite others to do the explaining of you for you," and sometimes they are ill-informed or are promoting a particular agenda.

But Keller has become a little more choosy about transparency. On the advice of Managing Editor Jill Abramson, he's mostly stopped reading the media blogs, including Romenesko's influential one on the Poynter Institute Web site (he still finds Gawker hard to resist). "There's nothing wrong with them, and I don't object to their existence," Keller says. "It's just that they can lead to a tremendous and to a somewhat disorienting degree of self-absorption."

He's also gotten more selective about granting interviews and about the questions he feels compelled to answer. "It was time-consuming and distracting," Keller says of his early transparency efforts. "Some of that time was well spent, but not all of it. Also, I think, there's a danger that if you spend too much time explaining yourself that you become defensive rather than authoritative."

So how should the Times decide when to respond to critics, and when to stand resolutely – and silently – behind its reporting? "I guess I'm in the process of learning that still," Keller says. "I think we're all trying to strike the right balance between transparency and accountability on the one hand, and defensiveness and self-absorption on the other. It's a little harder at the Times because we are the Times. We attract a more intense curiosity."

Keller says he hasn't "boiled this down to a set of rules or a formula about what you answer and what you don't. I don't feel readers are necessarily entitled to sit in on the editing process or to eavesdrop on our decision making. We're not obliged to account for every step on the way to publication, or non-publication, for that matter. Some stories we don't publish because we don't know enough. They don't meet our standards yet. They need to be thought through a little better."

When then-Times reporter Judith Miller went to jail to protect her source and then came out of jail after 85 days, Keller felt readers were entitled to know some of the back story. A team of Times reporters produced a tough, 5,805-word piece revealing that neither Keller nor Sulzberger asked Miller detailed questions about her interviews with I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., who was then the vice president's chief of staff. Keller says assigning his own reporters to the story was "the right thing to do," but "I'm not sure we should have spent as much time as we did talking to everyone else who wanted to compose the back story.... The Judy Miller episode writ large consumed a lot more energy than it needed to and probably made us look unduly defensive."

But Keller acknowledges that a more transparent era is upon us. "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," he says. "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."

But are readers swayed by the answers news organizations provide?

Calame, a longtime Wall Street Journal reporter and editor, became the Times' second public editor on May 23, 2005. He's thought a lot about transparency, and, like Keller, he sounds a little conflicted about it. "I see transparency as a default position for all those who want to do good journalism," Calame said in February. "I simply am not sure what the right degree of transparency is, and my not being sure is really a product of my some nine months now as the public editor at the Times."

Calame receives about 20 phone calls each day and hundreds of e-mails every week (he got about 1,250 from February 1 through 14 alone). Some come from people he terms "citizen subscribers" or "citizen readers," who care deeply about their communities, pose thoughtful questions about Times stories and decisions, and are genuinely interested in the answers. But many come from political partisans who won't accept any explanation the paper provides.

"The exchange is not always open-minded and raises the question of whether the transparency is ever going to have that great an effect if so many people have their minds made up on the left and the right. That gives me pause about transparency, because I've always believed that if you explain how you do your job, being careful to protect your sources, you will increase your credibility," Calame says. "I don't want to be put down as a nonbeliever, but I'm a little less certain.... I think that being in a job that's in the middle of an effort to be transparent has simply immersed me in it so much that it has raised questions in my mind about its magnificence."

Washington Post Ombudsman Deborah Howell felt the sting of partisan passions when she wrote a Sunday, January 15 column about the Post's investigation of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. She asserted, incorrectly, that Democrats as well as Republicans had received "Abramoff campaign money," igniting a furor so vituperative that the Post temporarily shut down a public comments portion of its Web site.

In a follow-up column January 22, Howell noted, "Nothing in my 50-year career prepared me for the thousands of flaming e-mails I got last week," and added, "I should have said [Abramoff] directed his client Indian tribes to make campaign contributions to members of Congress from both parties.... Going forward, here's my plan. I'll watch every word. I'll read every e-mail and answer as many legitimate complaints as I can.... But I will reject abuse and all that it stands for."

Are there any lessons here about transparency? After all, Howell's original column attempted to explain how the Post had reported such an important story. She then heard from angry readers – engaging with readers is key to transparency – and she answered their charges in the paper. Perhaps the episode is a sobering lesson in how attempts to be transparent can backfire, calling a paper's credibility into question rather than enhancing it and electrifying anger on the left (or the right) rather than stimulating thoughtful discussion.

Perhaps it shows the futility of engaging with some bloggers and online critics who would rather rant than listen. Bloggers have engineered or accelerated some notable media comeuppances, but their passion doesn't always translate into accuracy and certainly doesn't translate into civility.

Or perhaps the frenzy simply illustrates the importance of correcting mistakes – admitting errors is integral to transparency – in Internet time rather than newspaper time. As an editorial page columnist, Howell says she didn't have the option of publishing a correction on page two of the Post but says she should have posted a correction online much sooner. As it was, a clarification did not appear on washingtonpost.com until the following Thursday (she says she sent it Wednesday). In mid-March, the original column still had no correction attached to it online.

"I think that should have been corrected right away, and that would have taken away some of the anger. It might have, but I don't know that," Howell says. "I think I should have corrected it the first day on the Web site." When I asked in an e-mail after we spoke why she didn't publish a clarification or correction on the editorial page earlier in the week, she replied: "No one mentioned it to me, and I didn't think of it."

Howell's follow-up column did little to quench the outrage in the blogosphere. Many bloggers refused to accept that Abramoff's team of lobbyists had directed tribal money to Democrats. They either overlooked or dismissed stories in the Post that reached this conclusion based on interviews with tribal members and reviews of documents including lists sent to Indian tribes. (The Post might have benefited here from a little more transparency: This seems like it would have been a perfect opportunity to quickly post detailed documents online so readers could draw their own conclusions.)

Despite the withering comments she received, Howell's belief in the importance of transparency remains unshaken: "There are people who even when you show them the reporting they don't believe it," she says. But it's "always good to tell readers how you did a story and who your sources are and how deep the reporting goes."

Vaughn Ververs is editor of CBS' Public Eye, a blog launched in September 2005 that explains the network's newsgathering. Public Eye's "fundamental mission is to bring transparency to the editorial operations of CBS News – transparency that is unprecedented for broadcast and online journalism," proclaims Public Eye's Web site. "And what, exactly, is transparency? It has several aspects, but most simply it is this: the journalists who make the important editorial decisions at CBS News and CBSNews.com will now be asked to explain and answer questions about those decisions in a public forum" (see Drop Cap, October/November 2005).

Ververs, a former editor of National Journal's Hotline, says he's been a little surprised by the willingness of CBS journalists to respond to his questions, and he believes these exchanges will enhance credibility. "The more you engage in the process, the more benefit of the doubt you're going to get as a news organization," he says. There are "going to be people on both sides of the political spectrum, on all sides of political issues, that you will never do anything to convince them of a good-faith effort," he says. "But I still believe there's a vast middle of the country who do appreciate those efforts, who want to have that information, so they can make a judgment on their own."

Ververs believes a crucial part of these exchanges is a willingness by news organizations to acknowledge that "we could have done it better. We could have done it a different way." But he cautions that the potential "downside of transparency is being unduly influenced by a complaint" and letting public anger "change the way you practice journalism."

Steven A. Smith, editor of the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, has spent years railing against the "fortress newsroom," his term for the stale industry zeitgeist that regards readers as necessary nuisances. At the Spokesman-Review, which has a weekday circulation of 96,614, daily news meetings are open to the public, and the paper advertises that opportunity on page one several days each week. Visitors attend the meetings almost every day, and the paper posts a summary of the meetings online.

Smith says community newspapers such as his operate in a different sort of environment than national papers like the Times, a reality that makes their efforts to be transparent more manageable and more civil. "I think when people have to sit down across the table from you face to face, it creates a different kind of dynamic. In an ironic twist, the visitors to our newsroom are less confrontational than if they were communicating by phone or e-mail," Smith says, adding, "We still have a couple of wackaloons, don't get me wrong."

Last year, Smith used transparency to illuminate a less-than-transparent – even deceptive – newsgathering process. On May 5, 2005, the Spokesman-Review published a major investigative report charging that Spokane Mayor Jim West had for 25 years used "positions of public trust – as a sheriff's deputy, Boy Scout leader and powerful politician – to develop sexual relationships with boys and young men." Smith knew the investigation into West's alleged molestation would be explosive, in part because the paper had hired a computer forensic specialist to pose as a 17-year-old high-school student in a gay chat room.

Smith decided to make masses of raw reporting materials available online, including full transcripts of all interviews with the mayor and his alleged victims, as well as transcripts of all conversations the mayor had with the paper's undercover consultant. "We concluded total transparency would allow readers to review all of the material..so that they could decide for themselves if we had been fair to the mayor, if we were contextually accurate as well as factually accurate, if, in short, we were credible," Smith wrote in the Fall 2005 issue of Nieman Reports. "Again and again readers told us how much they appreciated seeing the background material. Some readers still disagreed with our reporting, disputed our conclusions, or attacked our methodology. But they did so with full knowledge of what we had done."

When I talked to Smith in early February, he spoke enthusiastically about yet another bold foray into transparency: His staff was preparing to start webcasting the paper's daily meetings. "I can't wait," Smith said. "I've been wanting to do this for years. I have to tell you our newsroom is very nervous. Our meetings are a blast," with "a lot of cynicism and dark humor. People are worried that that's going to change." Smith acknowledges staffers will need to be more careful about what they say at the meetings. Editors could be held liable for, say, referring to a county commissioner as a "sleazeball" and then having the comment aired over the Internet. The experiment, he concedes, could "prove to be a total disaster."

But he believes his staff is smart enough to handle it. "I think what's clear is readers are no longer willing to be passive consumers of news and information," Smith says. "They're really curious why decisions are made, and they're more willing than ever to challenge those decisions. Simply spewing information on a daily basis and standing pat is no longer acceptable, and it's not a recipe for a strong future for us."

But is unbridled disclosure the recipe for a strong future? Or are we so thoroughly demystifying our work as to cheapen it? More important, by making so much of the editorial decision making available for public consumption, do we risk sanitizing a messy process that should encourage robust debate and bold investigation?

Take the intriguing idea of posting entire interviews. "You want total transparency, but there's a cautionary note," says Catherine S. Manegold, a journalism professor at Emory University, visiting professor at New York University and former New York Times reporter. "You don't want materials misused, and if you're a good reporter, you're going to be pulling from a massive amount of materials. It's a complicated area, and it's not that resolved yet in people's minds."

What if the reporter interviewed sources on background? Should their comments be made available but their names removed? What if a source spoke off the record but made points that were essential in shaping the journalist's understanding and framing of the story? Without that information, readers sifting through online interview notes could come away with a very different, and possibly inaccurate, perception.

Or what if a source spoke on the record but shared information that turned out to be wrong? What if private citizens confided something they later regretted, something personal that had no bearing on the story? "It gets to be a great test of invasion of privacy," Manegold says. "If you violate that, I think that's a serious problem."

Still, "with some squeamishness," Manegold says she's inclined to support making some notes available to readers as a way to help them evaluate a story's accuracy and enrich their understanding of the reporting process. "People don't have a clue how complicated it is to be a good reporter," she says. "It's easy to be a bad reporter, but to be a good reporter is a complicated, fascinating job."

Some transparency advocates want to extend the notion of full disclosure beyond the reporting to the reporters themselves. Jeff Jarvis, the blogger behind buzzmachine.com, thinks there's "pretty much no such thing as too much explaining. In fact, we haven't done nearly enough," he says. "There should be disclosure from every organization and every journalist. Why do we fear that? We expect every organization to be transparent, but we're not. It always indicates to me a lack of faith and trust in the public we serve."

Jarvis, director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism, scheduled to open in September, thinks readers should be able to access reporters' biographies online. "The public, in the end, has to judge the truth of what we say. Part of that process is revealing our own backgrounds, our own prejudices," including financial ties, political leanings and other relevant beliefs. Why not reveal your religion if you're covering the abortion debate? Or come clean if you're covering the auto industry and gave money to the National Audubon Society? "Who did Dan Rather vote for?" he asks. "I'm sorry, but it's relevant. Everybody's assuming where he stands, but now it's a hidden thing."

Is it relevant, though? Or does transparency, taken that far, diminish our authority and make a mockery of our long-held belief that journalists can function as detached, objective professionals? Edward Wasserman, the Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, thinks such disclosures deflect attention from the reporting itself. And where do they end? he asks. Must every editor and every copy editor who worked on the story also reveal their autobiographies?

"To me, the cry for transparency isn't about holding media accountable," Wasserman wrote in a September 20, 2004, column in the Miami Herald. "It's a way to make certain media discountable. It creates a rationale for ignoring content you dislike by dismissing it as the deliberate product of unshakeable prejudice. Instead of ad hominem critiques, we're better off focusing on what matters: subjecting reporting to the test of truthfulness, and argument to the test of persuasiveness. That's terrain we can all fight on."

In an interview, Wasserman said he worries about another byproduct of transparency: that staffers could feel constrained about speaking frankly during editorial discussions, losing the sphere of "autonomy and freedom of movement they need to do their jobs. Looking over their shoulder the whole time doesn't necessarily make for a more determined and better-focused news operation," he says. "This is all contested terrain. My own feeling is increasingly that I think it's important to...stake out areas of professional autonomy within our system."

So how does the industry achieve transparency in a way that's both responsible and dignified, that subjects the newsgathering process to appropriate levels of public scrutiny without sacrificing our independence?

Bob Giles, curator of Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism and a former Detroit News editor and publisher, believes transparency is one avenue to rebuilding trust with readers. He says news organizations should consider what readers are interested in knowing about the process of putting out a newspaper, and "stories or columns that explain that process are useful. Second, there are those times when a newspaper by its own behavior makes news." Explaining what happened, why it happened and what is being done to prevent it from happening again also provides a service to readers.

But in the current climate, "you have a lot of people who have Web sites or blogs or columns, and the din of commentary sometimes drowns out the efforts of newspapers to explain themselves," Giles adds. Staffers' willingness to forward memos or e-mails to media blogs makes newsrooms more transparent, but it also "makes it more difficult for the editor to communicate openly and directly with the staff in a way that will...generate a discussion within the family of the newsroom without inviting outside commentators to weigh in."

Asked what degree of transparency newspapers should strive for, USA Today Editor Ken Paulson recalled two toys from his childhood: the Visible Man and Visible Woman, transparent human bodies that exposed the organs. "What you quickly discovered after building the model is that you really didn't want to see all the organs," Paulson says. "I think there is a middle ground in which we should always explain anything that would raise questions about our credibility and our professionalism, but as an industry we also have a tendency to be awfully self-absorbed."

Paulson thinks transparency works best when papers provide readers with context and perspective, explaining, for example, why a source cannot be identified by name but is still credible and important to the story.

As one example of useful transparency, he cites the coverage of the Sago Mine tragedy in January, in which faulty information and tight deadlines caused USA Today and many other major papers to wrongly declare that the miners had been found alive. Paulson was intrigued by how few newspapers printed editor's notes acknowledging that huge portions of their press runs had been inaccurate. He also was surprised to see his own paper's note to readers characterized elsewhere as an apology. "Does transparency only apply when you screw up?" Paulson asks. "What happened that night was defensible for a lot of reasons, but in the end, [more than] a third of our press run had it wrong. The average reader had to wonder how it could go so wrong. We owed them an explanation whether we were at fault or not. What story cried out for more transparency than that one?"

The problem, Paulson says, is that transparency is a buzzword. "What does transparency really mean? If a reader writes me a letter, as opposed to a computer-generated mass e-mailing, I always write back. Is that transparency?" Paulson asks. "I always thought it was good manners."

The Spokesman-Review's Smith also cringes at the suggestion that transparency is simply the journalism business' craze du jour. "I smoked cigars for 20 years and quit when it became a fad," he says. "I'm tempted to go back to the fortress newsroom just so I can run counter to the industry."

He says transparency has got to have some thought behind it. "It's not a silver bullet," Smith says. "It's not a solution to our ongoing problems. It's just one little piece of a lot of things we need to be doing, and even those may not be enough."

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