The Case for Radical Transparency

Although transparency has long been a fundamental principle of journalism, the need for a more expansive interpretation of this practice has never been greater.  Record low levels of trust in the news media, outright hostility towards journalists and the on-going crisis of misinformation all make the case for what the Knight Commission report on Trust, Media and Democracy called “radical transparency.”

Transparency, at its heart, is about truthfulness. As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel state in our text, The Elements of Journalism, “If journalists are truth seekers, it must follow that they be honest and truthful with their audiences, too–that they be truth presenters.”

In practice, this means that reporters should explain to the audience what they know and how they know it as well as what they don’t know and why. Remember when your math teacher asked you to show your work? It’s the same principle here. If people see how a story is reported and how information is verified, it could help them discern good reporting from bad and even arouse an appreciation of quality journalism.

And there is definitely a need for this kind of transparency. Studies show the public is skeptical about news and confused by many journalistic terms and practices.  In the last few years, the Knight Commission and other groups like The Trust Project and The Transparency Project have called on journalists to go beyond basic primers and explainers to help the public make sense of this challenging media ecosystem. They want to put transparency on steroids, with journalists rededicated to “developing industry-wide standards on how to disclose the ways they collect, report and disseminate the news.”  

In an American Press Institute report, Tom Rosenstiel and Jane Elizabeth interpret this mandate as a new way of creating journalism.  “The public can become more skillful news consumers — organically and instinctively — if journalists build stories differently, looking beyond the traditional news story structure,” write Rosenstiel and Elizabeth, noting that teaching news literacy is now part of a journalist’s job. They say that reporters need to anticipate and answer the audience’s questions about a story’s provenance and reporting separately–in boxes, billboards, or popup windows. 

Those questions could include:

  • What is new here? 
  • What evidence is there?
  • What sources did you talk to and why them?
  • What facts don’t we know yet?
  • What, if anything, is still in dispute?
  • What tough journalistic calls did we have to make on this story?
  • Why are there anonymous quotes?

Many news outlets like WBUR, The New York Times and The Washington Post have embraced these suggestions and made a concerted effort to address these and other questions about their reporting.

The hope is that people will view this additional information as a nutrition label for quality news and will ask themselves these questions organically whenever they consume news.

The reality, though, is that many readers skip over this content if it is not prominently displayed. According to a University of Texas study, the best way to showcase information about how and why, for example, The Wichita Eagle reported a story about the city’s water system is outside the article in its own box as you see below. When presented in that format, a majority of readers said the information enhanced trust of both the story and news source.

While more research is needed on how to get news consumers to notice and care about how journalism is produced, radical transparency is a worthy goal.

As Kovach and Rosenstiel went on to say in The Elements of Journalism, “Transparency has a second important virtue: It signals one’s respect for the audience.” If journalists redouble their efforts to be more transparent, perhaps that respect will be returned and trust in the news media restored and renewed.