By Martha Stone
2001 Poynter Ethics Fellow
Co-director, Online News Association Web Credibility Study
The mystique surrounding the way journalists do their jobs and the way media companies operate has estranged readers and viewers from the media.
It has caused precipitous credibility erosion over the past three decades. Readers and viewers feel lost and disconnected.
There are two methods of direct communication that can serve as compelling tactics to improve credibility: interactivity and transparency.
Few news media companies help the public understand how a news organization operates and makes decisions. Not many of them go beyond letters to the editor for interaction.
Interactivity has become one of the hallmarks of digital journalism. It has taught traditional media that two-way communication between user and media, rather than one-way delivery of news, is a tool to bolster credibility.
Another tool would be transparency. The media should be more open about themselves, their journalistic practices, and their company’s methods for reaching decisions that impact the public.
“Isolation impairs accountability,” said Philip Seib, author of Going Live: Getting the News Right in a Real-Time, Online World. Seib suggests that media organizations should be open to two-way dialogue about the news and about themselves.
Journalistic tradition has dictated a one-way communication that media organizations serve up to their readers. But the online medium has presented an opportunity to create a two-way mechanism to communicate with the reader, and to create a more transparent image of how media operate.
Even more basic than interactivity is the foundational underpinning of transparency: truth. “If journalists are truth seekers, it must follow that they be honest and truthful with their audiences, too–that they be truth presenters,” according to The Elements of Journalism, by Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach.
“The only way in practice to level with people about what you know is to reveal as much as possible about sources and methods. How do you know what you know? Who are your sources? How direct is their knowledge? What biases might they have? Are there conflicting accounts? What don’t we know? Call it the Rule of Transparency. We consider it the most important single element in creating a better discipline of verification.
“Transparency has a second important virtue: It signals the journalist’s respect for the audience. It allows the audience to judge the validity of the information, the process by which it was secured, and the motives and biases of the journalist providing it.”
By showing the reader that they have a public interest motive, they can bolster credibility, Rosenstiel and Kovach assert.
Transparency can manifest itself in many ways: public speeches, editor’s columns, journalists’ participation in chat rooms, in the willingness to reply to postal mail and e-mail from readers. Transparency can be a concept exercised by journalists in all mediums.
Readers, viewers and users often do not understand how and why decisions are made in the newsroom. Media companies’ credibility could stand to gain if effort is placed on illuminating for the reader just how we do our jobs and run our companies. The concept goes well beyond letters to the editor. It addresses the heart of the concept: actual dialogue, in which readers can give their opinions and affect change by keeping journalists accountable.
A newspaper’s credibility can be diminished in many ways. Readers can lose trust at any point, including the editorial department, the classifieds department, or the circulation department.
“Some of the public’s judgments about a newspaper’s credibility have little to do with the quality of the big series and scoops they work so hard to produce…An error in a family obituary, a vague impression that the newspaper was intrusive in covering a sensitive story, brusque treatment when they call the newsroom for information or perhaps a failure to publish their calendar announcement. Pile on the ills of other media, and the public has powerful reasons to doubt the local newspaper.”
Interactivity and transparency have vast implications for the elevation of credibility on Internet news sites. One of the byproducts has been the elevation of journalistic accountability for accuracy and adherence to standards.
“While there is a public relations component to such efforts, I believe the primary reason we should explain our modus operandi more often and more effectively is to “hold OURSELVES” accountable. Granted, the process is imperfect, but if we are to shine the light of scrutiny on other powerful organizations and professions, we must do the same to ourselves,” said Bob Steele, ethics group leader at The Poynter Institute.
As we illuminate our actions for our readers, we open ourselves up to criticism, but also to understanding and approval.
“A paper might benefit from candid analysis of what happened and why, something exploring its own motivations, conversations, and actions. It would have to peel back those protective coverings that journalists cloak themselves in. We would have to be willing to let readers in on internal disputes, apprehensions, shaky logic, and bad calls. That’s a tough order. Especially since news people tend to like the Oz effect–just read the story, don’t worry about what’s going on behind the curtains,” said Caesar Andrews of Gannett News Service.
In an effort to improve credibility, media companies are warming up to the concept of two-way communication and transparency, baby step by baby step. Consider:
- ABC News’ World News Tonight and Nightline have developed daily e-mails through ABCNews.com that preview Peter Jennings’s newscast, written by Jennings himself. Sometimes the note is a laundry list of the stories to be on the air, and sometimes Jennings explains why some things get into the newscast and other items don’t, says a longtime ABC producer. The producer explains that Jennings or Nightline‘s executive producer will respond to a viewer’s criticism about perceived bias, for example. “These e-mails are tremendously popular, and they go directly to the point about more transparency in the news gathering process,” according to Lynne Adrine, an ABC producer.
- The Arizona Republic has published an “Et Tu” column daily, in which employees of the Republic explain the behind-the-scenes goings on. For example, when a reporter was covering a trial with racial implications, she wrote an Et Tu item on her own experience with racial issues. When a controversial circulation department issue arose, the circulation manager wrote an explanation. When an expose on the Mafia was published, the investigative reporter who wrote the series wrote about his experiences in digging up the information. “The Et Tu column is an effective way to humanize media and to make us less of an enigma to our customers. I think our users/viewers/readers understanding us a bit goes a long way to giving us the benefit of the doubt when we stumble,” said former Republic Executive Editor Pam Johnson, now on the leadership faculty at Poynter.
- Reporter Paul Tosto of the St. Paul Pioneer Press has a database of 650 people, mostly parents, teachers, and citizens, who have called him in reaction to one of his education stories between 1999 and 2001. Tosto puts his phone number and e-mail address at the bottom of his stories. Most of his stories generate one to five calls or e-mails, some of them questions about the school system, and some yield story ideas.
- Jon Katz, media critic and writer for Slashdot.org and HotWired.com, has learned from experience that providing his e-mail address has nothing but positive effects on his own writing and the image of the publication he writes for. While it was difficult at first to take the criticism, it didn’t take long before he saw that providing his e-mail address made him a more careful writer, and feedback gave him story ideas for the future.
“When I first wrote a column for HotWired, it was very exciting,” he recalled. “There were hundreds of responses [to stories]–people taking me apart; really challenging my ideas. If you want to work in this environment, you’re opening yourself up for criticism and praise.”
Katz also noted that The New York Times in 1998 refused to add his e-mail address to the end of an op-ed piece that he wrote, even after the discussion went to the highest echelons of decision-makers at the paper. A Times editor told Katz that adding an e-mail to a story or column has never been allowed. In 2001, byline links or e-mail links are still non-existent at the Times.
“There are no links to reporter’s e-mails, no orders from on high. We are not urged to answer e-mail,” said Bernie Gwertzman, editor of NYTimes.com. Gwertzman said it is a matter of tradition, and also the fear of opening the floodgates of criticism.
The New York Times is not alone in not linking reporters’ bylines to e-mail. An estimated 10 percent or less of news sites offer this capability. Most online editors report fear of spending hours answering e-mails to the exclusion of writing and editing duties.
Besides e-mail, there are many ways to make reporters and editors accessible to readers on a news website. Among them:
- Provide an easily accessed, updated directory of all reporters and editors, with telephone numbers, titles, departments, and e-mail addresses.
- Require reporters and editors to answer e-mail within a limited amount of time, for example, within 24 hours.
- Consider adding chat sessions with reporters for big stories. Plan and promote the chat sessions around big stories, such as disasters, elections, or a much-debated community issue.
To be more transparent, online news operations should consider:
- Building an easily accessible area on the news site about how the news operation works, including chain of command, how news meetings work, audio or video file(s) of news meetings, graphics and pictures that tell the story of the structure of the organization and layout of the newsroom.
- Building a highly visible corrections area on your website. Create and live by a comprehensive corrections policy. Put a week or two weeks of corrections from the online news site and the TV, radio, or newspaper from which content comes, online. Make the corrections area easily accessible from the home page. Post the corrections policy, and provide a link to e-mail corrections from the corrections area. Many examples of corrections policies can be accessed from www.slipup.com, a site devoted to online news corrections and corrections policies, run by Frank Sennett.
- Building a guidelines area on your website, including journalistic and advertising guidelines. State clearly the principles of the online journalists, about what they will and won’t do to get a story. For examples of advertising and editorial policies, see http://www.cnet.com/aboutcnet/0-13611-7-920000.html?tag=nav. State clearly the acceptance policy for online advertising, and about the terms of the sponsorship and partnership deals, which may not be clear to readers at first glance.
- Create an “Et Tu” column to fit the needs of your community and the constraints of your staff to illuminate issues of interest to the public going on within the company, even if they are sticky and might not reflect well on the company.
- Hire an editor to carry out ombudsman duties either full time or part time online, to be the reader’s advocate. Dan Fischer, the first online news ombudsman, writes three columns per month about the inner-workings and decision-making process at MSNBC.com.In lieu of an ombudsman, train and require all reporters and editors to answer all e-mails and phone calls thoughtfully and thoroughly.
“We should remember there’s a reason for the word ‘public’ in phrases like ‘public relations,’ ‘public affairs,’ ‘public service,’ ‘public servant,’ and ‘public interest,’ ” Adrine said.
“Allegedly, journalism is a ‘public service’ that we perform in the ‘public interest,’” she added. “If we aren’t obligated to inform the public about what we report and why, then the whole effort becomes a self-serving exercise in someone’s self interest. If we have a responsibility to the public, that includes the uncomfortable task of self-examination in the public arena.”