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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    Kelly McBride

    Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute since 2002 and is now its vice president.


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