Posts Tagged ‘transparency’


Keeping journalism honest

Keeping journalists honest is something that will help journalism thrive in 2018 and beyond. (Photo: Pixabay)

It is said that the things that are the simplest are often the most important. This can be said in the case of honesty, for an honest journalist is a credible journalist. Whether its a breaking news story, a recap of the day’s events or an enterprise story, journalists owe it to their audiences to be honest in their reporting.

Yet, in a year where many questions about the future of journalism included ones about trust, honesty should go beyond reporting. It should include the overall editorial process.

In a recent study from three journalism professors, educating consumers about the journalistic process can reduce the appeal of conspiracy theories, especially those the study calls “politically tempting”. According to a report from the Columbia Journalism Review, the study is part of a series of academic work that suggests that transparency and openness about the editorial process can lead to things in news being seen as believable.

In an interview with CJR, Melissa Tully, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Iowa, says the emphasis on understanding the link between journalism and democracy can help in reinforcing trust.

“News literacy tends to focus on content, trying to critically read an article, but we believe that people need to understand the industry side and the larger relationship between news structure and democracy,” Tully said.

Additionally, Stephanie Craft, a professor of journalism at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, says in a CJR interview that it is easier to teach people about how the media works rather than changing one’s political viewpoints.

Recently, I wrote about two examples of how news organizations were showcasing honesty – the first instance at the Washington Post with a series of videos on the fundamentals of journalism and the other being an interview with Raney Aronson-Rath, the executive producer of Frontline, as she put the principles of the program’s Transparency Project to the test on the project The Putin Files.

SPJ’s Code of Ethics encourages journalists and news organizations to be accountable and transparent and to curate such a conversation about the editorial process.

“Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences,” the code says. “Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.” (For the record, I serve on SPJ’s Ethics Committee.)

If journalists and news organizations were to make a list of New Year’s resolutions, then a more open conversation about what it means to be a journalist as well as the editorial process certainly should top that list.

We are known for holding those in power to account and (to borrow the name of the CNN TV segment) keeping them honest. Along the way, we must also keep ourselves honest and not be afraid to engage the public about what journalism means in daily life – whether its on the usage of anonymous sources in reporting or how a certain story was reported.

Recently, the New York Times, in its story on federal immigration policy under President Trump, included this paragraph.

While it is a start, more can be done by the likes of the Times and others in order to help restore audiences’ trust in the media.

A credible journalist is a forthright journalist, and a trusted news organization is an honest news organization – so in 2018, let’s strive as journalists to keep journalism honest – in the newsroom and in the public eye. The media ecosystem will be better for it, and so will the people that matter most in journalism – the audience.

Alex Veeneman is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis and a member of SPJ’s Ethics and FOI Committees. You can interact with him on Twitter @alex_veeneman.

The views expressed unless otherwise specified are that of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Digital Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

Raney Aronson-Rath on transparency

Raney Aronson-Rath, Frontline’s executive producer. (Photo: Jonas Fredwall Karlsson/WGBH)

One of the biggest questions that journalism has faced over the course of the past year is how to maintain trust, in an era where the criticism “fake news” has become a norm. It is a conversation that is likely to continue over the course of the next year, as journalists and news organizations try to maintain trust with audiences.

For Raney Aronson-Rath, the Executive Producer of Frontline, the PBS investigative documentary program produced at WGBH in Boston, transparency is one of those solutions. In an essay for the Nieman Lab publication based at Harvard University, Aronson-Rath argued that transparency can be one of the ways that counteract recent high-profile criticisms of the media.

Frontline is no stranger to transparency. They’ve published transcripts of interviews that were conducted for their films for decades. Aronson-Rath said it was a tradition at Frontline, and had an impact on the work she did while she was a producer.

The Transparency Project, which Aronson-Rath runs with former Washington Post managing editor Philip Bennett, took that one step further, and was a way to help the public understand the thought process into the construction of the films.

“There is a skepticism about journalism in general,” Aronson-Rath said in a telephone interview. “We are facing a cluttered landscape.”

For their recent series, The Putin Files, which accompanied the film, Putin’s Revenge (its second part aired on PBS stations this week), Aronson-Rath wanted to put the Project to the test. The complete collection of interviews from all 56 sources was put online for all to see – 32 videos alongside transcripts, and 24 of them transcript only.

For Aronson-Rath, the basics are showing what they’ve gathered and uncovered, and to allow people who were skeptical or who raised questions access to the archives.

“When you’re doing transparency projects across the board, you may not know the amount of work that goes in, but now you know the amount of gathering and thought that goes into it,” Aronson-Rath said, adding that having the ability to emphasize what can be shown is a great way to do journalism in the public interest. “We welcome people under the intelligence gathering tent.”

Aronson-Rath believes in the health of the journalism and the news organization. She is clear to make sure that Frontline does not fall in any inadvertent silos, and was something she wanted to ensure when she took over as Executive Producer. The audience is important to Aronson-Rath as these stories come to light, irrespective of platform.

“I want to reach a wide range of people,” Aronson-Rath said. “That is at the center of Frontline – that we’re fair, we’re tough and we’re telling as much as we can.”

That call is shared in her belief of diversity with the ongoing conversation in the industry on workplace culture, amidst allegations of sexual harassment and assault against some prominent men in media.

“It’s important that women run things,” Aronson-Rath said. “It’s just as important as having diverse producers. I’ve always felt that women should be in positions of power. I hope more women join the senior and executive ranks.”

While transparency can help when it comes to relations between audiences and individual news organizations, it can also help with media literacy, and helping to distinguish fact from fiction. Aronson-Rath says news organizations and social media platforms have a dual responsibility when it comes to trust in media.

“We need to have a conversation on what it means to publish on the platform,” Aronson-Rath said.

Aronson-Rath takes an example from the magazines that are seen in the supermarket lines when you check out. You look at them thinking they aren’t true, but that has gotten more difficult for that to be recognized, especially in this multi-platform digital age.

Aronson-Rath says that for that to happen however, we cannot wait to let things change by themselves, and that news organizations and social media platforms have a dual responsibility to help with trust.

“My belief is that if we can teach people who are younger what a news organization is, what platforms they can trust – what is true, what isn’t and what is verified, we can see a difference,” Aronson-Rath said. “It is crucial.”

When all is said and done however, Frontline’s mission remains the same.

“We’re accountability journalists first and foremost,” Aronson-Rath said. “Criticisms do not change the standards.”

Alex Veeneman is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis and a member of SPJ’s Ethics and FOI Committees. You can interact with him on Twitter @alex_veeneman.

An external conversation

One of the pressing questions journalism is facing is how outlets can restore the trust of the public. Last week, the Poynter Institute held a summit to discuss journalism ethics (which SPJ’s national president, Rebecca Baker, attended), which coincided with the release of a media trust survey.

During the summit, one way that the Institute found to help combat questions of trust is to be transparent about the reporting process.

Days after that event, The Washington Post began a video series which looks at the journalism process. The first installment looked at the story surrounding sexual harassment and assault allegations against Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for the vacant Senate seat in Alabama.

Reporters Beth Reinhard and Stephanie McCrummen were candid about the process that led to the story, from on the ground reporting in the state to the meticulous amount of vetting that followed, as they tried to put the story together.

“We needed to be very careful in vetting information, and making sure that the people we were talking to didn’t have an ax to grind,” Reinhard said. “Every sentence, we went through, and vetted, and with a story with so many details, it was painstaking fact-checking.”

McCrummen was asked about the interviewing process and how sources are treated, as some sources in the Moore story had expressed reluctance of going on the record.

“The first meeting was just a chance to hear her story in a way she felt comfortable telling it – which was off the record,” McCrummen said. “I try to treat someone how I would like to be treated, and I’m really interested in what the other person has to say. That’s why I’m there – I’m there to listen.”

McCrummen adds that applies irrespective of the desire to go on the record.

“I see my role more as offering a chance for people to go on the record or to tell their story if they want to,” McCrummen said, adding that it was much better to present a more human element when it came to reporting.

SPJ’s Code of Ethics, as part of the need to be accountable and transparent, encourages journalists and news organizations to encourage a conversation about the editorial process and to be transparent about it, a view shared by Poynter.

What the Post has launched is a necessity in helping the public better understand the role of journalism, and other news organizations should follow suit, utilizing the platforms they have available to them, in an age where anyone can publish anything, whether or not its true – and the words “fake news” continue to become a norm as reporters carry out their work. Indeed, the more conversations journalists can externalize about their own future, the more that can be done in order to helping the public understand why journalism is and must continue to be a quintessential part of our democracy.

While the question of trust is something that cannot be solved overnight, the Post’s actions are a start in helping the public understand the role of journalists in the 21st century. More organizations should take the time to do the same – for it benefits everyone, and helps us all to better understand a fundamental goal of journalism – seeking the truth and reporting it.

Alex Veeneman is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis and a member of SPJ’s Ethics and FOI Committees. You can interact with him on Twitter @alex_veeneman.

The views expressed unless otherwise specified are that of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Digital Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

A transparent Facebook

Facebook should appoint a public editor for the interests of not just news organizations, but audiences. (Photo: Pixabay)

Facebook should appoint a public editor for the interests of not just news organizations, but audiences. (Photo: Pixabay)

It has become a common theme for Facebook in the past few weeks. Another day comes, and with it comes another change to its algorithm.

The most recent change came this week, when the social network announced its plans to combat clickbait by examining headlines of articles. Some types of headlines would be considered clickbait, including, according to a blog post on its corporate web site, those headlines that are misleading or withhold specific aspects of information.

Quoted in The New York Times, Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s vice president for product management, which oversees the News Feed, said the change was made with users’ interests in mind.

“We want publishers to post content that people care about, and we think people care about headlines that are much more straightforward,” Mosseri said.

This had raised some concerns with publishers, as well as additional concerns that they did not have insight into the decision making behind the algorithm changes, according to the Times report.

Mosseri said that he met regularly with publishers to discuss such changes, and that Facebook would be more transparent about its changes. Indeed, while transparency is all well and good, more needs to be done for a platform that has a significant influence in the relationship between consumer and news organization.

Earlier this year, I wrote a post for this blog advocating a public editor post be created within Facebook, a post that would, according to New York based journalism professor Jeff Jarvis, not edit per se, but be a voice for the public. I renew that advocacy with this post.

A creation of such a role (or perhaps multiple roles), similar to what is being done at organizations like the Times and at The Guardian, would ensure Facebook be truly transparent.

Indeed, the SPJ Code of Ethics, where under the section “Be Accountable and Transparent,” calls for a conversation about news coverage, content and journalistic practices. Even though Facebook itself is not a conventional media company, the rule should apply to them, considering the influence it has on the dissemination of information to users, as well as engagement strategies in various newsrooms.

As such, a creation of a public editor role would, in my view, support this call, and allow Facebook to be honest with not just its audience, but publishers as well, and allow for a full conversation about what role the social network can have in the future of this industry. With this role, we can understand the algorithm changes better, have our say on the changes, and help make the algorithm beneficial for the people who we serve — our audience.

While the same can be said for Twitter, Google and other platforms, having Facebook create a public editor role would be significant in the world of social media journalism, and perhaps others can follow their lead.

The idea and the call is there. The decision on whether a public editor role should be created, however, is solely in Mark Zuckerberg’s court.

Your move, Facebook.

Editor’s note: This post was amended at 4:04pm CT on August 7 to add that The Guardian also has the post of a global readers editor.

Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member and founder of SPJ Digital, is SPJ’s Community Coordinator and is a contributing blogger to Net Worked on social media’s role in the future of journalism. 

Outside of SPJ, Veeneman is a Managing Editor and contributing writer for Kettle Magazine, an online publication in the UK. You can interact with Veeneman on Twitter here.

The views expressed in this blog post unless otherwise specified are that of the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SPJ Digital community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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