Why ‘be transparent’ has replaced ‘act independently’ as a guiding journalism principle

Whenever people discuss how journalism is changing, one of the most common questions is: “Who is a journalist today and who isn’t?

It’s the wrong question.

In an age when publishing has gone from being an industry to a button, as theorist Clay Shirky has put it, anyone might commit an act of journalism given the right circumstances.

The more pertinent question, then, is what constitutes an act of journalism.

Bill Kovach and I have considered this question in several of our books together, particularly “The Elements of Journalism” (a thoroughly new edition is coming next spring). Now, Poynter’s Kelly McBride and I, along with a dozen other thinkers, have taken up this issue in a new book called “The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century.”

The work explicitly attempts to update a set of ethical guidelines, “Guiding Principles for Journalists,” developed by The Poynter Institute in the 1990s under the leadership of Bob Steele.

Those principles were built around three concepts about what those who wanted to produce ethical acts of journalism should do:

  • Seek truth and report it as fully as possible
  • Act independently
  • Minimize harm

As we worked with our co-authors, listened to others and watched the contemporary circumstances, the first concept — seek truth and report it as fully as possible — remained primary.

But the second principle — act independently — was problematic. Journalism is no longer the province of a homogenous group, once dubbed “the working press,” whose financing is generated to produce journalism for its own sake. In the 21st century, journalism may come from think tanks and corporations, from advocacy groups and passionate advocates, from accidental witnesses and curious beginners, and more.

Some of this work is propaganda that should not be called journalism, even if it tries to imitate the voice and tenor of journalistic work. Some of it falls squarely inside the best traditions of journalism.

Some of the work also merges the source reporter relationship, sometimes for political reasons. Edward Snowden is not just a leaker providing documents; he is setting terms of engagement. His contact at The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald, is a political activist and blogger who works in association with a superb news organization, The Guardian.

As McBride and I note in the book: “The concept of journalists as clearly independent of those they cover will be more complex because the opening of the information system to all means those who make the news will also cover it.”

Thus, the most striking change in our new guidelines is that the second overarching concept, “act independently,” has been replaced by a new one: “be transparent.” (Transparency is also one of the core ideas that has run through “The Elements of Journalism” since its first publication in 2001 as a recapturing and redefining of the original intention behind objectivity.)

McBride and I offer three sub headings that offer more detail. The first is “show how the reporting was done and why people should believe it.” This is largely about technique. Who are your sources? What is your evidence? Reveal what you cannot know. Make intellectual honesty your guide.

The second subhead under transparency involves a greater burden. It demands that you clearly articulate your journalistic approach, including “whether you strive for independence or approach information from a political or philosophical point of view.” In other words, acknowledge your intentions, and be honest about how that might impact what you report and how.

This level of transparency is more subtle but just as critical as talking about how you gathered the news. Acknowledging your relationship to the information is an essential step in establishing why people should believe you. Without it, they should be suspicious.

Even though anyone can publish, that doesn’t mean what everyone has to say will strike people as credible. Despite the public’s declining trust in the news media, audiences recognize journalism as something distinct from propaganda. The goal of journalism is to provoke public consideration and discussion. The goal of propaganda is persuasion toward a particular political outcome.

Even if a work of journalism is financed by an advocacy group wishing to push an issue, what will distinguish it from activism is not just fidelity to accuracy and completeness, but also whether the authors have come clean about motives and have let other views have their best say.

In this way, transparency will pull publishers of information toward best practices and also toward the most important kind of independence — intellectual independence. Indeed, if the work comes from advocates, the suspicion will naturally be higher and the proof of honesty will have to be even more complete. (In the new edition of “Elements of Journalism,” in the same vein, independence from faction remains one of the core intellectual principles.)

This notion of independence as an intellectual concept, rather than a commercial one, deepens what independence means in a journalistic context. In the age of a strictly independent press, intellectually sloppy reporters and intellectually dishonest ones would wrap biased reporting in the clothing of neutral presentation. In the age of transparency, that will be harder to do. Journalistic integrity must be evident in the work, not assumed in the publisher.

Properly understood, in other words, journalistic independence hasn’t disappeared. It has deepened and gained resonance.

The third guiding principle in the book is also new, though like transparency, it really expands and deepens the concept that it replaced. “Minimize harm” has become “engage community as an end rather than as a means.” This commitment to fellow citizens, too, enriches the notion that it has replaced.

Not only should journalists avoid harm. They should actively create journalism to help their follow citizens understand and engage. In short, journalism must be accurate, transparent and should serve citizens, not simply leverage them for commercial reasons.

Put another way, in our new digital century, journalism is the act of observation on behalf of fellow citizens. Who practices that, and how they practice it, is changing. And both of those statements could have been said in the previous century, too.

Tom Rosenstiel, the executive director of the American Press Institute, is an author, journalist, media researcher, and a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board. You can follow him on Twitter at tbr1.

“The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century” is now available. The book is a compilation of essays and case studies edited by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, with a foreword by Bob Steele, for use in newsrooms, classrooms and other settings dedicated to a marketplace of ideas that serves democracy. You can find more information about the book here.

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  • JHamer

    Excellent piece, Tom! You and Kelly are absolutely right that transparency is an essential element for anyone committing acts of journalism in the new media ecosystem. Knowing where journalists are coming from is absolutely vital to credibility and public trust. Being accountable for mistakes and open to other points of view are equally important. A simple, voluntary tool that can benefit anyone doing journalism today is the “TAO of Journalism — Transparent, Accountable and Open” Pledge and Seal. See http://taoofjournalism.org to know how it works. I just presented the concept to the Alliance of Independent Press Councils meeting in Tel Aviv, where it was well-received. It’s no panacea, but it can help!

  • Robert Knilands

    “Seek truth and report it as fully as possible.” Poynter failed at this recently, when it continued to insist that a bill before Congress was “what Congress wanted,” even though several senators said exactly the opposite.
    Also, the continued clinging to the idea that visuals have raised circulation is a pretty serious dodge of the truth at this point.