The Ethical Argument for Transparency in Journalism – Part I

If one can make an ethical argument for participation in journalism and that transparency is necessary for participation to occur, then it follows that there is an ethical argument for transparency.

For a long time I’ve had a post inside of me dying to get out. A few months ago I was invited to speak at the International Symposium of Journalism with Dan Gillmor, Ethan Zuckerman and Jan Schaffer. The presentation I gave is here. I got a great chuckle from the second and third slides.

But there was one slide which almost made me re-do the entire presentation. Because it struck me as something worth exploring. It was slide seventeen on “Transparency” seen below.
This quote comes from Wikipedia.

“For well-informed participation to occur, it is argued that some version of transparency, e.g. radical transparency, is necessary, but not sufficient.”

Perhaps it stood out to me because of the “necessary, but not sufficient” which flashed me back to logic class when I was a philosophy undergrad. For whatever reason – I dwelled on it.

I’ve dedicated the majority of my career to two things in this order: Increasing participation in journalism and increasing transparency in the process of journalism. Something I’ve zenned out on recently is how connected the two are and how we often treat them as mutually exclusive.

I’d argue that we need transparency in order for journalism to become more participatory. How can we expect people to participate in the process of journalism if that process is opaque? Only a fool dives into muddy water.

If one can make an ethical argument for participation in journalism and that transparency is necessary for well-informed participation to occur, then it follows that there is an ethical argument for transparency.

Which means the next topic should be “An Ethical Argument for Participation in Journalism.”

Now a confession: It’s late at night and I’m tired. In fact, the only reason I started this post is because I can’t sleep. Perhaps now that I’ve started this thread, I’ll count some ZZ’s. But you, dear reader, can help me. What is the ethical argument for participation in journalism as you see it?

18 thoughts on “The Ethical Argument for Transparency in Journalism – Part I

  1. First of all, I would say that while you may have something here, it isn’t very clearly stated ~ perhaps because you were tired:) Personally, I believe that no one will participate in journalism without transparency – but – integrity underlies transparency and unfortunately journalism is lacking in that field.

    I recently ran into a large problem getting quotes from managers because “I am a journalist,” and while that baffled me on many levels (I am a student) I was able to understand their fear once I calmed down. They didn’t understand my integrity and preferred to rely upon the reputation of previous journalists. Therefore they did not participate.

    Transparency allocates participation in a way that acts like a circle ~ and if it does not begin with the journalists themselves there can be no looping into participation.

  2. @Anha

    Um, thank you – although that felt like a backhanded compliment ;)
    I really don’t know how I could be more clear. It’s a simple three step argument.

    1. There is an ethical argument for participation in the process of journalism.
    2. Transparency is necessary for good participation to occur.
    3. Therefore – there is an ethical argument for transparency.

    I also think we are talking about two kinds of “participation.” If you notice I often include the follow-up “in the process of journalism.” By which I mean – people committing acts of journalism, helping a reporter out, etc – on their own terms – not just as a source, which is on the reporters terms.

    Granted – that is an elemental component to journalism (reporter and source) but that’s now the process that I am talking about or the part of the process that needs to open up. In fact, I’d argue that part of the process is fairly transparent. People know, more or less, what they are getting into when they become a source for a reporter – and people ethically should know when they are a source (it’s considered bad practice to represent yourself as anything other than a reporter when getting quotes). So while it is transparent – it is not defacto “participation.”

    Does this make sense?

  3. Lol…no backhanded-ness involved :) Promise!

    As far as if it makes sense – not really, but then my journalistic experiences are still quite small and my literal mind often finds it hard to wrap itself around concepts.

    It would be incredible to have this “participation” that you speak of. I work at a police dept. part-time and find myself in the middle of all sorts of “participation” from the public – some helpful, some not.

    If I am misunderstanding, please feel free to explain more. I can say, however, that whatever type of participation you are intending to explore would be useless without transparency. Are you asking if there is an ethical way to solicit “participation?”

    Furthermore, while I certainly agree that most people have an idea what they are getting into when speaking to a journalist, my job with the PD gives me a particular POV since I am on the receiving end of journalists and their questions. Far too often are comments taken out of context and used to originalize (my word:) the story instead of telling it ~ so why would they (PD or others) willing step forward and participate on their own accord?

    Thanks for your patience!

  4. I’m not sure if this answers your question, but this is how I see transparency and participation.

    From working five years in a college newsroom and three summers now in a professional environment, there have been a countless number of complaints from journalists about transparency. We want city hall to be more transparent. We want university officials and police officers to be more transparent.

    What gets lost in our babbling is how hypocritical newsrooms can be when it comes to transparency. I’ve heard way too many complaints from readers and community members about the approach reporters take to talking with them (controlling the conversation, not being friendly and approachable, etc.) and the editorial judgment of the newspaper (Why is this story on A1? Why didn’t this story make the paper?).

    Saying reporters and editors in a newsroom don’t know what readers want is not entirely correct. They’re citizens of the community they’re covering, too, and many take initiative to ask for feedback on their coverage. But sometimes our jobs become such a routine, we sometimes lose sight of how to best cater to our community and stay relevant. And overall, it’s irresponsible to assume we’re efficiently serving our readers.

    So how does this lead into the ethical argument for participation? Honestly, Dave, I feel like the argument made for transparency also can apply to participation. Transparency leads to participation (as you stated), and participation, in a sense, leads to transparency. For journalism to truly empower a community, it needs community members playing an active role and playing off the news coverage provided by professional journalists, as opposed to reading the paper and accepting what journalists deem news (which sounds too much like what PR agencies do).

    It makes a lot of sense to me. The more participation you’re getting from community members, the more story ideas and tidbits they’re providing (thanks to your transparency), and the better response you’re getting from, say, bigger and controversial news stories, the better role you’re playing as a watchdog and as a news source for said community. That, to me, is a great argument for participation.

  5. QUOTE
    If one can make an ethical argument for participation in journalism and that transparency is necessary for well-informed participation to occur, then it follows that there is an ethical argument for transparency.

    Which means the next topic should be “An Ethical Argument for Participation in Journalism.”
    END QUOTE

    I’m confused. Shouldn’t that read “which means the next topic should be “An Ethical Argument for Transparency in Journalism”?

    After all, you are assuming the ethical argument for participation in the first paragraph.

    Again, perhaps I’m confused at the way this is stated.

  6. No – I think the next topic is still to make the ethical argument for participation.

    “After all, you are assuming the ethical argument for participation in the first paragraph.”

    Am I?

    I didn’t assume it. I said if there IS an ethical argument for participation then it follows there is an ethical argument for transparency. But I never actually made that argument. Just pointed out that if participation is deemed as an ethical necessity in journalism than transparency is as well – based on the idea that you can’t have participation without transparency.

    It’s sorta like the old “socrates is a man, all men are mortal, therefore socrates is mortal.”

    EXCEPT: We don’t know if participation is ethical – I haven’t made that argument yet. But if I can AND I can show that all participation requires transparency – it follows then that……

    Does this make sense?

  7. The only ethical argument for transparency in journalism I can postulate is that exclusionary or inheritance systems in journalism are bad. By exclusionary or inheritance systems, I mean that one is not allowed to be participate in journalism (because systems of publication and readership are not extended to him or her) unless one has passed certain initiation rites such as university training, one of few arenas in which you’re allowed to build a network of contacts who can usher you into the biz. The ushering, as a lockable door system, is what I meant by inheritance system; you’re family now, so we can share the banquet feast of massive existing readership and powerful publication engines. And the reason I say that these systems are bad, is because they don’t necessarily always judge quality or character of journalism, as much as they judge by in-group mentality. Can you speak my language, use my fashions, my voice, my style-book? If you can, you’re in the club. It’s an arbitrary system of judgment, which doesn’t produce the best journalism available from human minds.

    And if we can say that the locked-door system is not our friend, then the open-door system should be plied. An open-door, you can see through; it’s the essence of transparency in journalism. We can effect this kind of transparency via certain workers punching holes in the existing opaque system, through which others may look. Not everybody who wishes to document life need be this way, of literarily punching holes, let’s say, but some must, and they must be read, patronized, and supported. Otherwise, the establishment based on principles of exclusion and inheritance will go on being the establishment and it will be difficult for people to realize or even wonder if there’s anything on the other side of this wall, and if there is, should we trust it?

    The community of people who care about achieving the greatest quality of journalism, and the purest, most effective quality of information–in this case, what we’re calling a good thing, and therefore ethically valid… I don’t know if I’m using these terms correctly; I never studied much philosophy or rhetoric–must establish a framework by which:

    *those who are working to elucidate the mechanisms of the journalism-publication readership-‘effective communication’ system so that anyone with something valid to say can be heard, can engage the system*

    can be named as a literary/artistic/economically valid class of workers and be supported themselves, by society.

    After that freedom-fostering mechanism is firmly in place, the community can organically assess and either validate with attention and monies or not, any new journalistic expressions that come to bear. It’s a more free system, where more people are allowed to think and make decisions about who gets read, and who gets funded. Oligarchies are discouraged from forming, rather than explicitly encouraged, as in the current system. Collective Consciousness is allowed to rouse a little from sleep and stupor. It’s a twitch, and it’s going to feel good.

    So definitely, the transparency in journalism is necessary to change the game from a more capitalist-inspired one to a more organic one. And I’m not talking shit about capitalism per se; it’s as organic as America has been able to handle for a long time, and it’s even morally successful in a lot of ways. But the systems of exclusion and inheritance can be removed, in this day and age, especially from journalism and art. And such a movement, as previously established here, will increase the quality of those things as life-enhancers and life-amplifiers for us.

  8. “I’d argue that we need transparency in order for journalism to become more participatory. How can we expect people to participate in the process of journalism if that process is opaque? Only a fool dives into muddy water.”

    First, never underestimate the number of fools. Second, if the water is muddy, you can’t see the jagged rocks six inches underneath, so it’s easier to be coaxed in.

    Metaphors are fun!

  9. @ David Cohn
    Okay, I think I see your point more now. You are saying that people assume the ethical argument for participation prima facie, correct?

    Interesting. I assume some ethical arguments for participation could be found in Mill’s “On Liberty.”

  10. What is the ethical argument for participation in journalism as I see it? — This is just a swipe at it, from someone on the far ‘Am’ side of the Pro-Am equation :-)
    First, when you say ‘participation in journalism’ — I am taking it to mean more than simply ‘be available for an interview’ or ‘go on record with your statement.’
    Participation in its broadest sense to me would mean:
    –writing or otherwise expressing your observations, experiences, insights in a public forum
    –contributing financially or in-kind toward journalistic or information-sharing endeavors
    –having a sense of the value of staying informed and what that means to you personally
    The ethical argument for each person to engage with (“participate in”) journalism is, to me, akin to voting. People want to connect and contribute to their society in a real and honest way (if people didn’t care there wouldn’t be so much bitterness and disillusionment about politics). In the US, the historical role of journalism has been to enable democracy by keeping citizens informed. The news came all packaged in the magazine or paper and went from point A and went to point B. Now things are shifting; people are going more ‘a la carte’ in sourcing their news, and playing a type of role already by transmitting it to each other online. We send a link or post it on FB, and make a few comments, maybe debate a couple points – that’s a form of active engagement. It’s also very American; don’t we also enjoy our spirituality a la carte?
    We need a critical mass of engaged people to create a viable new model to finance the big-ticket items… the tough cases, the war coverage, the investigative journalism… that are always going to be jobs for the pros. And these are things that we really need to know, there’s no doubt about it. I think people are in some ways already more engaged than they were before. Connection, learning, sharing, now are happening in more collaborative and organic ways because of the internet — but we’re still like the blind men in the room trying to describe the elephant. No one person can see the whole picture because there’s just too much to see. Working in collaboration is probably the only way we’re going to get things in the proper perspective – because the perspective is going to be a compound one.

  11. @GAToomy – awesome comments. I will digest this. You are right – when I say “participation” I mean that in a broad sense (not just participating in how the journalists want it).

    The argument I want to explore is related – but not tied to democracy but journalism itself. I want to stop and think: Is there a final goal (in philosophy called a telos) of journalism is to get people to engage with it.

    I hope to write about this more soon.

    Until then – I love you all ;)

  12. Awwww! :-)

    Thanks, we love you too, DigiDave.

    Not to get try and deconstruct this all too much — I hope I’m not turning into a PITA

    BUT … when you frame things in terms of ‘the goals of journalism’ — are you thinking in terms of what the industry wants, or what journalists want, or some mixture of both?

    If you accept that people are now ethically responsible to participate in journalism — or even if you want to use that as a working argument — then maybe your initial question needs to be re-vamped. Journalism is an abstract concept — it’s a practice, an industry, an ideal. Can it have goals? (Do you get where I’m going with this?) The people using journalistic tools and the consumers of news have goals. Asking what are the goals of journalism to me invokes the fear of the current industry of becoming obsolete, bankrupt, irrelevant.

    What goals do people have when they write or communicate, personally or professionally?
    What goals do people have who read and follow any type of news?
    Is there some larger framework that we all should be tied into? What do all these people have in common?

    And now I’ll stop bothering you … ;-)

  13. Ah crud, that didn’t last long. What if there was a way for the public to identify these big stories, the really big expensive beats (War coverage etc) and vote money to pay the person we most would trust to give us honest and thorough coverage to go there and cover it? It would be like getting an editorial assignment with a paycheck attached!

    And now I really WILL stop cluttering up your thread, I promise… !!!

  14. @GAToomy

    Two things.

    1. In terms of talking about journalism – I am usually talking about the practice of journalism – not the profession. In fact, that’s something I discuss all the time. There is the industry of journalism and there is the practice of journalism and those are two different things.

    In terms of the practice of journalism – I think we can argue that it has a “goal” – but you need to think of this not as a human oriented goal or what we might think of as a goal at all. I think journalisms goal is very related to the goal of education (again, talking about the practice, not the industry).

    As for your second comment and idea. Have you heard of http://www.spot.us.

    If not – please check it out and let me know what you think.

  15. @ Digidave

    Thank you for your response!
    You know, I did find you and this blog through the Spot.us website but I went back again and saw that there are many more features than I’d realized at first. I didn’t realize that people could suggest stories and other people could fund them – what a great twist, a story looking for an author!
    I am really excited by your concept.
    The one ‘piece of the puzzle’ that’s still missing for me, looking at the options on Spot.us, is to figure out first which stories have the most potential (and which line up with my own interests) and second WHO is qualified to write the story. I would be more willing to pony up $ if I could examine a set of resumes online and pay toward the person I felt would be most qualified to write about a complex issue requiring a lot of deep background and, say, understanding of a particular industry. For example, I saw an impassioned reader pitch saying ‘someone NEEDS to write about this one particular aspect of the mortgage crisis’ – but it’s hard as a layman to sort out if this person really has something or not. I almost feel like there’s another level of vetting needed – sort of like the way that Spot.us. already will recommend certain stories, which is nice, but I want to know WHO are you, what are your qualifications, what stories do you think ‘have legs’ etc etc.
    Please don’t take this as a negative post because honestly this project is mind-blowingly cool and I am thrilled by the success you’ve had so far! The most I can contribute to it is honesty :-) And some $$ too once I get a few extra to jingle in my pocket — !

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