5.5 5. Be Transparent

Transparency is essential not just for citizen journalists and other new media creators, but also for those in traditional media. The kind and extent of transparency may differ. For example, bloggers should explicitly reveal their biases. Big Media employees may have pledged individually not to have conflicts of interest, but that doesn’t mean they work without bias. They too should help their audiences understand what they do, and why.

Transparency in the traditional ranks has scarcely existed for most of the past century. While journalists are more publicly open than many other industries in at least some ways, there’s a notable hypocrisy quotient. As any of us, professional or not, demand answers from others, we should look in the mirror and ask some of the same questions.

The transparency question boils down to something that may sound counterintuitive but is actually logical: If you do an honest job as well as you can, greater transparency will lead your audience to trust you more even while they may believe you less. That is, they’ll understand better why it’s impossible to get everything right all the time.

Transparency takes several forms. I strongly believe that news organizations have a duty to explain to their audiences how they do their journalism, and why. They could take a page from the newcomers, such as bloggers, the best of whom are much more open on this; their world views and motivations are typically crystal clear. And their audiences, even people who disagree with those world views, can refract their own understanding of the topics through those lenses.

The response I get when I say these things is typically along these lines: If journalists say what they think, they’ll call their objectivity into question. Well, I don’t believe in objectivity in the first place. And the public already perceives journalists to be biased, which of course they are—though I don’t believe this is the same as being unethical.

Bloggers, through their own relentless critiques, have also helped foster transparency in traditional media. However unfair bloggers’ criticism may often be, it has been a valuable addition to the media-criticism sphere.

Not all bloggers are adequately transparent. Some, to be sure, do reveal their biases, offering readers a way to consider the writers’ world views when evaluating their credibility. But a distinctly disturbing trend in some blog circles is the undisclosed or poorly disclosed conflict of interest. Pay-per-post schemes are high on the list of activities that deserve readers’ condemnation; they also deserve a smaller audience.

As noted earlier, these principles aren’t the beginning or ending of what trusted media creators should embrace. But if we use them, we’re moving in the right direction.

Now let’s dig a little deeper into transparency, or being open about what you do and who you are. As I’ve noted, it’s an essential component of being trusted. Some of what’s ahead refers to traditional media, but that context is useful for all of us, no matter what media we create in any format.

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