Why there’s a need for more transparency & context in op-eds

One of the most dramatic changes in the modern media environment is the process by which certain voices rise to significance.

In the last couple of weeks, several voices and ideas deemed worthy of attention by national newspapers have been shot down in the digital space.

In mid June, The New York Times published an op-ed by Richard Bennett, a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, who claimed that the broadband infrastructure in the United States was doing just fine, despite criticisms that it’s slow and overpriced. The liberal-leaning site Media Matters for America responded by criticizing Bennett’s viewpoint in two separate pieces.

The Wall Street Journal found itself in a similar position a few days later when it ran an opinion piece by editorial board member James Taranto, who argued that efforts to stop sexual assault in the military show “signs of becoming an effort to criminalize male sexuality” and is a “war on men.” Taranto’s view was torn asunder by critics here and here.

The Washington Post last week published a traditional editorial that argues that NSA leaker Edward Snowden needs to be stopped before he causes any real damage to U.S. interests. That created a chorus of boos from a variety of circles.

This is both the best and the worst of the modern marketplace of ideas. It’s the best because it is easy to debunk ideas and theories coming from individuals who claim more authority than they deserve. It’s the worst because consumers no longer have an easy way to sort through the cacophony to determine which voices they should listen to.

Before the Internet, journalists as the gatekeepers of information deferred to several formal systems — academia, the publishing industry, government posts — that naturally sifted potential voices on a given topic and bestowed a microphone to the most significant. This was far from perfect and disenfranchised a great many valid opinions.

Now, New York University professor Clay Shirky argues in the opening chapter of “The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century” that as the digital environment destroys those sorting systems, it becomes much harder to identify relevant voices. As more voices can be amplified, Shirky says, we experience a narrowing of the topics for which we can arrive at a consensus.

Who can say if American broadband is indeed slow and overpriced, or if there is a war on men, or if Snowden really is a threat to our national security?

It turns out everybody and anybody can answer these questions. That changes the role of editorials and op-eds and even traditional news reports. It’s no longer enough to expect that an individual’s expertise and validity is self-evident, simply because a newspaper editor used his or her well-trained judgment. And that little italicized tagline doesn’t do much either. Editors have to tell the audience why they picked a certain individual to elevate above all others.

The tools consumers use to arrive at clarity are changing. Where it used to mean something to say, “I read this in Time magazine,” now a consumer is likely to say, “I read that, but then I read three things trashing that idea.”

That leaves most news consumers in a really muddled place. If you are really passionate about broadband, or preventing sexual assaults in the military, or national security, you probably have the wherewithal to figure out who the most relevant voices are. But the rest of us develop a defensive strategy that might include ignoring information because it’s too confusing, or trusting our social network or a few trusted advisors.

News organizations want to be included in that last category of trusted advisors. To do that, they need to embrace radical transparency, where they explain every decision they make.

Op-ed pages like The New York Times often strive to provide a variety of viewpoints. But when most consumers arrive at one of those op-eds through a social media link, that mission is lost. Likewise, columnists and editorial pages strive to provoke and advance an argument.

Newsrooms need to find a way to signal this role. They could include links to related editorials, columns and op-eds. They could also add more context and information to the tag line, even with a link.

It’s not that Richard Bennett’s column on broadband was invalid. Instead, some readers felt like they didn’t know enough about him or his organization to place his remarks in context. Similarly, the Washington Post’s editorial seemed to ignore the fact that some of Snowden’s leaks were being published in the Post. Acknowledging and reconciling that dissonance could have helped the audience for that editorial understand how it came to be written.

Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor at the Post, wrote in an email that he gets this. He believes the primary function of editorials is to be thoughtful and timely, he said. And the timely part means working much faster in today’s environment.

“I think the second biggest change is the sheer volume of opinion writing available. No newspaper or other organization can assume that it will be listened to just because of who it is,” he said. “If we want to have influence, or be listened to, or provoke thought, we have to earn our place with the quality of our editorials, and we have to re-earn that every day. I think this is a good thing, too. It pushes us to step up our game.”

When it comes to trying to influence the marketplace of ideas, stepping up the game means more than just sharpening the writing and the ideas behind the writing. It means giving the audience the information to understand why this opinion was selected, who this person is, what makes him or her relevant, and what other information might be relevant to the reader.

It’s a tough task. And it might mean offering fewer opinions in order to have the resources to provide other information. But it’s the type of transparency that will keep professional journalists relevant.

After all, if you’re the editor of a traditional editorial or op-ed page, you want the digital space to light up with every opinion you publish. More specifically, you want the conversation about the merits of the idea to light up. But often, the conversation is instead about the validity of the voice. More transparency and more information would shift that conversation from the speaker to the idea.

The Poynter Institute’s book The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century will be available Aug. 1. This compilation of essays is edited by Poynter’s Kelly McBride and The American Press Institute’s Tom Rosenstiel. The book features a new framework for ethical decision-making among journalists and those who care about democracy. On August 15, McBride will host a News University Webinar about the book.

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  • tonguetiedfred

    I’m sorry but describing Taranto’s views as “Women who accuse men of rape …are likely to be lying.
    Or perhaps that military values take priority over equality and
    justice for women. ” is incredible obtuseness on your part.

    First how many times do people have to point out that no charge of rape was made before it penetrates? Second, arguing that the rule of law should be upheld and that the rights of the accused need to be respected has nothing to do with military values, it is American values. Equality and justice is for both men and for women.

  • Mel Content

    Open commenting is the best part of any op-ed article. It’s the only system of checks and balances that allow complete BS to be called out…

  • Max Handler

    Thanks for taking the time to respond. Unfortunately, I don’t have a twitter.

    I understand your point about the Times seeking a different perspective on many subjects. However, I do feel that on most major issues the Times consistently stands with the majority of liberal thinkers, which is not exactly “out of the mainstream.” But I do see your point, and I wouldn’t be surprised if an actual content analysis proved me wrong.

    I think that you have still misconstrued Taranto’s argument though. At no point does he talk about rape; he is simply talking about sexual assult. The actual facts of this case clearly back Taranto’s interpretation. This man was wrongly convicted. General Helms’ own legal authority, Col. Williams, wrote a letter to Taranto arguing that he felt that Helms had done the right thing in overturning the court’s ruling. While some reform to the system may be needed, Taranto clearly demonstrate’s that the current system has the ability to exonerate the wrongly convicted. And I don’t think that he believes that women who accuse men of rape are likely lying or that military values take precedence over women’s rights. It would be quite a stretch to get the impression that Taranto believes either of those things from the article.

    In some ways, I think that the most interesting part of the article was the backlash to it. As TallDave rightly points out, not a single one of the rebuttals actually focused on the content of his column. I think that this is probably because it doesn’t fit the narrative that feminists want to paint of sexual assaults in the military, i.e that these assault occur often and that the army tries to sweep them under the rug. Part of it is also likely due to the fact that Taranto took the position that the woman in this case bore some responsibility for what happened. I understand why this is an unpopular view, and why people like Serena Williams get in trouble for saying such things. But the fact of the matter is that the woman in this case clearly acted in a reckless manner. Taranto was not saying that she deserved to be assaulted, as some of his critics implied. He simply was trying to say that she acted recklessly.

  • ynotbush

    transparency

  • http://classicalvalues.com/ TallDave

    No one was raped in this case. Why does everyone seem so confused about that? Nor does that complaint make much sense — as the military legal adviser noted, the burden of proof is much higher in civilian courts. If anything, the tradeoff is between men’s rights and military expediency.

    And yes, women who accuse men of rape are, in fact, often lying — as much as half the time according to some studies. And in so doing they often ruin innocent men’s lives without consequence. Some people may not like to be reminded of that, but feelings aren’t facts — offense-taking carries no moral nor logical weight.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2358759/Leanne-Black-finally-jailed-FIVE-false-rape-allegations-ex-boyfriends-years.html
    http://blog.lib.umn.edu/jbs/maysession/KaninFalseRapeAllegations.pdf
    http://www.sacbee.com/2013/07/09/5553262/sex-video-clears-men-accused-of.html

  • http://classicalvalues.com/ TallDave

    If you think Taranto’s piece was “shot down” then, well, you aren’t thinking at all. No one has yet claimed that any of the facts of the case as stated were wrong, instead critics have used appeals to emotion and ad hominems in support of the notion a man accused of a sex crime does not deserve a fair hearing.

  • gjsmith_62

    “In the good old days before the Internet, a handful of editorial page staffers were able to ensure that only the right people had a voice in public policy debates. ”

    Wow! You hit the nail on the head. Folks who are interested in the facts can find them (finally) and folks like MM seem strictly advocates of policy, rather than facts.

    The WaPo and NY Times have shaped POLICY for too long. What they print (dissemble) is as important as what they ignore. When these folks act as though they’re disinterested unbiased “News” organizations, it is simply not true. At least I admit and know I am partisan.

    OTOH, “greater transparency” … it isn’t as simple as looking at a biography. IMHO, too many biographies, really don’t tell folks squat, e.g.,

    “Kelly spent 14 years covering saints and sinners in Spokane, Wash. Now she’s at Poynter, searching for the soul of American journalism.”

    While it might not be “right”, seems writers like McBride should at least identify their affiliations up front. (sorta what McBride alludes to below)

  • Kelly McBride
  • Kelly McBride

    Hey Max,

    These are both good points (which of course I have a different take on, but I wished I been able to see them while I was writing this piece, because if I had addressed these issues then, the piece would have been stronger.)

    On the Times’ op-ed page: While I haven’t done a content audit, it would not surprise me that it leans liberal on a liberal-conservative continuum. But what the Times op-ed page does very effectively is seek voices that are out of the mainstream. So when the consensus on a given topic seems to be X, Times editors deliberately look for voices that can say something different. I know this from reading the op-ed page and from personal experience. On at least two different occasions, when a media issue has been front and center, an editor has called me as asked if it would be possible for me to argue a different point of view. (The one that I remember is the phone-hacking scandal. An editor wondered if someone-anyone could argue that democracy needs journalists to push boundaries in order to get information. While theoretically I could make that argument, I couldn’t figure out how to do it in a way that it would not look like I was defending the guys who broke into a teenage murder victim’s voice mail, which is indefensible. So I declined.) But for that effort, I give the Times’ props. Where there is an excess of homogenous thought, it’s absolutely their responsibility to seek out something different and provocative. So that’s what I meant by diversity and I probably should have said a bit more to make that clear.

    On the Taranto column: Sure, he’s talking about a specific case that he found particularly egregious. But he clearly states his support for the system that allowed commanding officers the discretion to offer clemency to accused rapists. Those who are trying to fix the military system that seems unable to punish rapists have identified that particular point as a crucial weak spot. That said, of the three examples I cite, I think that column is the one that would be least improved by transparency. His underlying beliefs that could be made more transparent might be these: Women who accuse men of rape (at least a large enough minority to require an escape clause in the justice system) are likely to be lying. Or perhaps that military values take priority over equality and justice for women. And if either or both of those are the case, then I understand why so many people find his views to be offensive.

    Your points are ones I wished I considered as I was writing. What’s your Twitter handle? That’s one place where I try to have front-end conversations about my work. I’d love for you to be part of that.

  • Max Handler

    Overall, I felt that this was a very interesting article. However, there are two things with which I take issue.

    The first was the claim the New York Times “often strive[s] to provide a variety of viewpoints” in its op-eds. The Times publishes mostly liberal editorials and very little that is more than a tad right of center. In my mind, that does not constitute “a variety of viewpoints.” The Times has been this way for quite a while, so it does not appear to me that they are striving for balance.

    The second is the description of the column by James Taranto. There have been a large number of problems with the reaction to his column and this article contains the most common one: the complete misunderstanding of Taranto’s point. It is quite clear from reading the article (and the one he wrote in response to the backlash) that Taranto does not think that the military’s attempt to combat sexual assault is part of a “war on men.” Rather, he argues that one particular case is indicative of a what he percieves to be a war on men, and and that if all cases involving prosecution of sexual assault in the military are like the one he described, then there is a real “war on men” in the military.

  • http://hightechforum.org/ Richard Bennett

    Actually no, I don’t realize that.

    The op-ed provides the source for my rebuttal of Crawford’s claim that the US is 22nd and falling in broadband speed. My source is the same as Crawford’s source, only newer: Akamai’s State of the Internet report. We’re 8th and rising.

    Shameful, isn’t it?

  • Martin L Martens

    Richard – do you realize that you are doing exactly the same thing that you are bemoaning? You’re attacking and smearing Media Matters. You’re also providing evidence that Kelly McBride is absolutely correct. In the end, what you’re doing is what the tobacco lobbyists and the oil industry global warming deniers do – obfuscate and evade, throw out unsubstantiated facts and hide the source. All in an attempt to create uncertainty in the minds of the readers.

  • http://hightechforum.org/ Richard Bennett

    God forbid newspapers should require interested readers to do their own Google searches rather than digest an over-simplified gatekeepy narrative that protects them from the dangers of analysis. The New York Times has published several op-eds by Susan Crawford and others of her ilk, as well as their own anonymous editorials criticizing the state of American broadband policy. Times readers who aren’t recently revived from comas will be aware that there are various points of view on this subject, as there are with most things.

    You’re dodging my main point: It’s more important to know what the facts say than it is to know whether a given writer is a member of the proper tribe. I’m all for informing readers on the former, and couldn’t care less about the latter. You obviously disagree.

    On the 990s, you fail to mention that David Brock’s hit man confines his analysis to two sources whose total contribution to ITIF is barely enough to cover the organization’s office supplies. It’s just as easy to cherry-pick 990s as anything else. There’s no shortcut to the facts, Kelly: you have to your homework on the issues.

  • Kelly McBride

    Hi Richard,

    It seems to me like your long comment makes my point for me. It’s not that the information isn’t available. It’s that the op-ed pages don’t take the responsibility to readily surface that information for their audience. Readers had to click through to the ITIF website, and then to the report, and then to the footnotes of the report to have their questions answered. If op-ed pages were anticipating that in this modern information ecosystem many readers have many questions, the editors could make those specific links available directly, rather than forcing folks to hunt and peck for them.

    A slightly longer tagline at the end of the op-ed might say: “Richard Bennett is with ITIF. We published his column because (state rationale.) Here’s a link to the report he refers to and here are links to the specific footnotes that support his argument. Here’s a link to ITIF’s 990s. And here are five other informed opinions on this issue.”

    And then somewhere op-ed pages need to explicitly state: This is where we publish a variety of opinions on important issues. We strive to bring you informed, diverse opinions. Here are the principles we use to select writers.

  • http://hightechforum.org/ Richard Bennett

    This is a very odd column. You claim that “some readers felt like they didn’t know enough about [Richard Bennett] or [ITIF] to place his remarks in context” and call for greater transparency. Yet ITIF has a website that shows staff biographies and the organization’s past work on telecom, Internet policy, green energy, and all of our other areas of interest, and the Times specifically mentions the “Whole Picture” report that provides 145 footnotes supporting the claims I made in the Op-Ed; it’s here: http://www.itif.org/publications/whole-picture-where-america-s-broadband-networks-really-stand.

    I would submit that any conscientious reader who cares about the status of American broadband networks can satisfy his or her curiosity by turning to the primary sources referenced in the report. The primary sources are more important than my background (I co-invented Wi-Fi and modern Ethernet) or the organization’s background as a non-partisan, third way policy developer that spun out of Progressive Policy Institute six years ago. The notion that truth is what the right people believe is actually quite defective.

    It’s also amusing that you refer to Media Matters as “liberal leaning site” that “criticized my viewpoint.” Anyone with more than a pedestrian interest in politics knows that MM is more accurately characterized as a far left attack group, founded by former right wing hit man David Brock, that lives to personalize public policy and to demonize those it regards as foes.

    The MM articles that mention me utterly fail to address the substance of my argument; they simply attack my character and argue that I’m not entitled to hold opinions on broadband policy since a very small portion of ITIF’s funding comes from mobile broadband and cable lobbying groups. I would welcome a debate on the merits of my argument, which must be easy to rebut if it’s simply industry spin, but MM is clearly incapable of developing a coherent argument.

    Similarly, it’s bit of a joke to suggest that Clay Shirky is some sort of paragon of journalistic ethics. In fact, Shirky is an advocate with clearly defined political views who seeks to advance a particular agenda regardless of the facts. His commentary on the SOPA bill that Congress considered a couple of years ago was littered with factual errors and outright, manipulative appeals to emotion. Regardless of how one feels about slowing the rampant theft of intellectual property or about the need to protect free speech on the Internet, there’s no question that Shirky is not an objective, disinterested journalist seeking to elevate the tone and tenor of policy debate as much as an attention-seeking performer with little regard for the truth.

    Your article seems to devolve to one simple complaint: “In the good old days before the Internet, a handful of editorial page staffers were able to ensure that only the right people had a voice in public policy debates. Now all these pesky subject-matter experts are expressing their opinions in terms that we journalists can’t even understand. Sometimes they even use numbers! Isn’t there some way to shut them up?”

    Sorry, but there isn’t. Public policy, especially tech policy, reflects the increasingly complex world we live in. The days in which the liberal arts generalist could get to the bottom of any policy issue in four phone calls are gone, if they ever existed. The skills that journalists need to develop if they’re to survive in the present age are analytical, statistical, and logical. Instead of asking “what do my friends think?” learn to ask “what do the facts say?” That’s not going to be easy, but it’s the way toward enlightenment.

    Calling for greater transparency when every biography can be discovered with a couple of Google searches and the NSA knows more about what we think that we do is so very last century that I have to wonder if you can even take your own column seriously.

  • Kelly McBride

    Actually Alan, Shirky argues that arriving at the truth is a lot harder these days and that we have a much more narrow space in which to do so. My co-editor, Tom Rosenstiel, and I call for much greater transparency for all acts of journalism as an appropriate and ethical response to this new condition we all face. So not just op-ed writers at all, but all of journalism. That’s why we need a regular column to discuss.

  • Pam Fine

    Good advice to news organizations. The column also reinforces why its critical we teach students how to think critically about the who and what of what they’re reading…

  • http://societymatters.org/ Alan Mairson

    Kelly – Thanks for an interesting piece. One question: In “The New Ethics of Journalism: A Guide for the 21st Century,” does Shirky call for transparency only on op-ed writers? Or on all journalists?