Trying Transparency: Inner Workings Revealed

By Scott Libin

It took a while for the term “transparency” to win me over.

For years, it brought to my mind the idea that you could “see right through” somebody. I associated transparency with being somehow shallow, lacking in substance, less than solid.

It’s taking the practice of transparency a while to win journalists over, too.

I remember college professors who taught me that the news is what the editor says it is. I understood that to mean that we as journalists owed nobody any explanations, least of all readers, listeners or viewers. If they didn’t like what we reported, they could take their business elsewhere.

That was not an entirely serious notion, and the joke was on the audience — like comedian Alan Sherman’s mid-’60s lyric about taking one’s business to another phone company. Get it? There was no other phone company! Hah-hah!

The real punch line, of course, was decades in the making. AT&T may again be a big name in the telecommunications field, but it is not the monopolistic Ma Bell of my youth, and what we now call the “mainstream media” will probably never again enjoy the dominance they once knew, either.

What helped me understand transparency as a virtue was another image from my childhood. The coolest clock I knew as a kid still sits in my parents’ living room. It’s antique brass with a white face and glass sides giving a great view of intricate inner workings.

That’s what works for me: the idea of revealing the mechanism within, whether it’s about keeping time or making decisions. I still like watching the gears mesh, the parts operate and the process play out before my eyes. It helps me understand how the hands move. It tells me time is not standing still. It shows me the clock has not stopped.

I’ve used that metaphor many times in teaching about transparency as a tool of journalism. I hear frequently these days about interesting ways in which news leaders are learning to use that tool.

In 2003, Joel Sappell was the Los Angeles Times senior entertainment editor, overseeing coverage of the business of Hollywood. Sappell also held the title of deputy business editor. He edited the newspaper’s investigation of allegations that Arnold Schwarzenegger, then a candidate for governor, had a history of groping women. The investigative team was ready to publish just days before the election — which raised a host of new concerns about a story that was already complicated enough.

“The old model was, you don’t drop any bombshells on the eve of the election,” says Sappell. Now assistant managing editor of the Times and executive editor of latimes.com, Sappell is also a 2006 Poynter Ethics Fellow. He says California’s 2003 special election did not operate on a traditional timeline. So, “because of the compressed amount of time, we decided to run it,” Sappell told me. “We knew it would be controversial.”

They were right.

“In hindsight, because of all the questions we knew would arise… I think we underestimated the backlash,” Sappell believes now. “I think we should have had an editor’s note that explained the timing, explaining why we broke with journalistic conventions in not breaking big stories on the eve of elections, and our methodology.”

At the time, Sappell says he and his fellow editors felt the work should speak for itself, and that editor’s notes could seem defensive and apologetic. Sappell says now he’s changed his mind.

“I am a complete convert… I’ve come to believe a lot in explaining to readers our process,” he told me. “I am a true believer in providing context for our large undertakings.”

Considering widespread public mistrust of news media, Sappell says journalists need to explain “that we do not just move into these things recklessly.”

And recently, Sappell says, “I had the opportunity to take that same transparency and apply it to a story that really needed it.”

When the Times print edition ran a big Sunday front-page special about treatment of troops injured in Iraq, latimes.com published a multi-media version that included first-person letters to readers from the reporter and photojournalist who had covered the story (http://newsblogs.latimes.com/lifeline/).

The newspaper provided what Sappell calls a very short editor’s note, but he requested “a broader (online) explanation, because people might get caught up in ‘how did they get that?’ which would be missing the point.

“With the Schwarzenegger thing, if we had taken care of that up front, we wouldn’t have had to be on the defensive on the back end.”

WDSU-TV in New Orleans recently had an unusual opportunity to report on its own reporting.

For 24 straight nights, the station has been producing and broadcasting debates among candidates for local office in the area’s first elections since Hurricane Katrina. The series concludes tonight (Monday, April 17, 2006) with a debate in the New Orleans mayoral race, co-produced and carried nationwide by MSNBC (http://www.wdsu.com/index.html).

For its first few debates, the station borrowed a page from Fox’s “American Idol,” and added a twist, encouraging viewers to vote in an unscientific online “poll.” After each debate, the three candidates with the greatest number of online votes got an invitation to return for a rematch.

“We knew the poll could be manipulated,” says News Director Anzio Williams. He says each debate disclosed the system’s unscientific nature. But that disclosure didn’t provide the protection Williams had hoped it might.

When the station learned that candidates were organizing campaign staff to flood the station’s site with votes, Williams and his colleagues reconsidered.

“When people started taking advantage of the system, it was our duty to act on it,” he says.

They acted in several ways.

First, they practiced what Poynter’s Al Tompkins likes to call “turning the problem into the story.” Anchor Norman Robinson reported on the debate over the debates. His coverage of the controversy led the station’s debate that night.

WDSU did an online poll about whether or not to continue the online polls. “Continue the polls” won, Williams says, and that’s what he has done — but he has discontinued using the poll results to determine candidate participation in subsequent debates. The station kept reporting the results of online voting, but eliminated the practice of eliminating candidates.

And Williams says he fielded and responded to an enormous amount of feedback from viewers and voters. That involved a lot of time on the phone and answering e-mail, not all of it polite, but Williams says it was worth it.

“One guy called in and said, ‘I knew there was something fishy,’ ” Williams reports. “He said, ‘It takes a lot of guts to admit you were changing your mind… A lot of people won’t admit to mistakes, and you guys have.’ “

Still, Williams says he has “no regrets. Our intentions were in the right place, to allow viewers to have as much interaction as possible.” The controversy contributed to that interaction, as the newsroom sent photojournalists into the field to record the comments and questions of callers for use in the ongoing debates.

Participants in Poynter seminars report their newsrooms are trying out transparency in new ways almost every day, and they’re learning that the concept has a lot in common with other elements of accountability: It isn’t as simple as it sounds, it feels funny at first and the skills involved improve only with practice.

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