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.