Coming Clean: Demystifying Journalism
By Tim Franklin
Editor, Orlando Sentinel
Secrecy breeds skepticism. This is a fundamental truth, and it is a mantra I have used many times in conversations with public officials and corporate executives who were refusing to give my newspaper access to information or to explain events.
As journalists, we rightly believe that governments and institutions owe their citizens and shareholders explanations about what they're doing and why they're doing it. We implore them to come clean. We cajole them to be open with us. We question their motives when they hide information.
So, what do newspapers do when their own work is called into question? Do they explain what they did, why they did it, and how mistakes happened?
What are the answers to those questions? Well, let's just say we can and must do better.
Our mantra should be: Transparency builds trust.
Don't get me wrong. I understand that journalists are not government officials. I understand that an independent press is vital to democracy, and we must not forfeit our independence.
The problem is that too many of our readers — on whom we are dependent for our own success — believe that we use our independence to justify being aloof, arrogant, and unaccountable.
Whether that perception of us is justified or not, we need to acknowledge that it exists. And we need to do what we can to change it.
The best ways to do that are to be accountable for the accuracy of the information we produce, to be candid about how we got it, and to explain how we used it.
For many years, we either felt immune from the necessity to explain ourselves or we thought readers didn't care about our own inner workings.
Because of the recent scandals in our industry, however, we need to recognize that our credibility has taken a serious hit. We need to use this moment in history to review our standards and practices. And, yes, as newsroom leaders we need to re-evaluate how we interact with our readers and our own staffs to prevent future scandals.
We must renew our commitments to ethical, accurate, and truthful journalism. But our credibility also hinges on opening the shades to our own operations and responding to our customers who are looking in the windows.
Transparency builds trust
We must renew our commitments to ethical, accurate, and truthful journalism. But our credibility also hinges on opening the shades to our own operations and responding to our customers who are looking in the windows. Readers should know where information in our stories came from. In rare cases when we can’t reveal our sources, we should be as specific as possible about who they are, their motives, and why they can't be identified.
In the pages of our newspapers, we need to give readers access points to the newsroom, not just to the circulation department. When newsroom management gets contacted, it should respond.
We need to let readers know they should contact us when they see errors, and we should tell them whom to contact. We should then consistently correct errors of fact and clarify contextual problems.
We must find ways to demystify what we do.
Why is it that less than 4 percent of the daily newspapers in America have ombudsmen or public editors? Would we find it acceptable if only 4 percent of department stores had customer service contacts?
Those ombudsmen or public editors should be writing weekly columns about newsroom operations, people, and decision-making.
If a paper can't afford an ombudsman, then the editor or another newsroom senior manager should be writing a regular column to readers.
We should be looking for other ways to communicate with readers. Host community forums. Invite readers in for a brown-bag lunch. Set aside an hour or two every month when readers can call senior newsroom leaders.
In addition to making yourself available to readers, you also must be open and honest with your staffs. Keep the door open. Roam the newsroom. Have regular town hall meetings. Invite staff members into your page one meetings.
Reaping the results
Some skeptics will say, "What does all this have to do with making us a better newspaper?" To which I would respond: How can you reflect your community if you’re out of touch with the people who live there? How can your staff know what your values and standards are if you don’t keep reinforcing them?
Why is it that less than four percent of the daily newspapers in America have ombudsmen or public editors? Would we find it acceptable if only four percent of department stores had customer service contacts? A few days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, we hosted a lunch with Arab-American leaders in central Florida. We had a candid and collegial discussion. After the tragic attacks in New York and Washington, our local coverage was deeper and richer because we had a better understanding of Arab Americans here. And we had access to them.
Building a culture of transparency will make newspapers better, build staff morale, and improve credibility. It also can help build readership at a time when we’re searching for ways to grow our audience.
Take the case of John Ervin, a management consultant from Brevard County, Fla. Ervin, a longtime Orlando Sentinel reader, had persistently contacted the newspaper when he saw errors and omissions in our coverage. He never got a response.
On the brink of giving up, Ervin sent along another complaint in the spring of 2001. That one, however, got routed to the Sentinel's recently appointed public editor, Manning Pynn, who promptly responded.
Ervin was stunned to hear back from the paper. He was even more surprised when Pynn invited him to observe a page one news meeting and meet senior editors.
Ervin now feels such a bond with the newspaper that he sent Pynn a happy New Year's note last year.
Transparency builds trust.