The importance of transparency

Today, I pre­sented the reporters in our news­room with the con­cept of putting the source doc­u­ments they obtain online so that the read­ers can see them along with the articles.

The crime reporter later ques­tioned why we should include doc­u­ments like an affi­davit on the Web when her story is mostly based on that doc­u­ment. Wouldn’t that just be duplication?

My answer to her this morn­ing was that read­ers like hav­ing those source doc­u­ments. It’s an extra fea­ture that doesn’t cost any­thing — apart from a lit­tle qual­ity time with the scan­ner — and helps the read­ers feel more involved in the news. Also, I said, it would help keep us account­able. In other words, to bor­row a phrase from Ryan Sholin, show your work.

When I got home, I was still think­ing about trans­parency and how to explain it bet­ter the next time I had to defend it. Fortunately, the Web provides.

Sholin’s blog led me to David Weinberger, who wrote the excel­lent Everything is Miscellaneous. In July, Weinberger wrote that trans­parency now car­ries a lot of the Lose Weight Exercise that used to be on objectivity’s shoulders.

Objectivity’s prob­lem, he says, is that it’s unre­al­is­tic. Bias is inher­ent; it’s part of being human. Objectivity with­out a side of trans­parency “will increas­ingly look like arro­gance,” Weinberger writes. “And then foolishness.”

He goes on:

What we used to believe because we thought the author was objec­tive we now believe because we can see through the author’s writ­ings to the sources and val­ues that brought her to that posi­tion. Transparency gives the reader infor­ma­tion by which she can undo some of the unin­tended effects of the ever-present biases. Transparency brings us to reli­a­bil­ity the way objec­tiv­ity used to.

Objectivity may work for the body of knowl­edge that is mostly set­tled, he writes, but at the edges, where infor­ma­tion is still mal­leable, it doesn’t work as well.

At the edges of knowl­edge — in the analy­sis and con­tex­tu­al­iza­tion that jour­nal­ists nowa­days tell us is their real value — we want, need, can have, and expect trans­parency. Transparency puts within the report itself a way for us to see what assump­tions and val­ues may have shaped it, and lets us see the argu­ments that the report resolved one way and not another. Transparency — the embed­ded abil­ity to see through the pub­lished draft — often gives us more rea­son to believe a report than the claim of objec­tiv­ity did.

Richard Sambrook, direc­tor of the BBC Global News Division, put it this way (as sum­ma­rized by Mercedes Bunz in the Guardian):

He stressed that news today still has to be accu­rate and fair, but it is as impor­tant for the read­ers, lis­ten­ers and view­ers to see how the news is pro­duced, where the infor­ma­tion comes from, and how it works. The emer­gence of news is as impor­tant, as the deliv­er­ing of the news itself.