May 6, 2004

“Aly Colón wants news reporters to get naked,” Jessica Raynor, an Amarillo Globe-News reporter, wrote in a recent story about a speech I gave at the Panhandle Press Association in Texas.

Raynor, thankfully and accurately, went on to explain that I wasn’t referring to news reporters’ bodies, but to the bodies of their work, and their working environment. I encouraged them to uncover the workings of their world for the public to see.

The ethical issue I wanted to talk about involved transparency.

And transparency, I told the group of Texan journalists, is nothing more than a fancy word for getting “naked,” or being open about what it looks like to be a journalist. These journalists, many of whom run, or work for, weekly and small circulation dailies, understood. They constantly contend with and confront tough journalism issues — face to face, with people they know and who know them.

I revisited this issue in another setting. I spoke to a gathering of ombudsmen, public editors, and reader representatives at the recent annual meeting of the Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO).  Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR Ombudsman and ONO member, offers a helpful explanation of what’s involved in being an ombudsman in a column he posted recently.

Geneva Overholser, who writes the Journalism Junction column on our website, was a luncheon speaker and stressed how much more important the role of the ombudsman has become. Currently the Washington-based professor for the University of Missouri journalism school, she once held the ombudsman position at The Washington Post.

Tom Rosenstiel, director of The Project for Excellence in Journalism, and vice chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, offered several ideas for change.

Journalists, he said, need to create a new relationship, or partnership, with their audience. He believes this partnership should reflect transparency. He suggested news organizations say more about their sources and why the rest of us should believe what they say.

There should be “no more ‘Trust Me’ journalism,” he said.

I followed his presentation with a session I dubbed: “The Naked Truth about Who We Are and What it Means.”

I began by offering the following definitions, which I got from

• Naked: Being without addition, concealment, disguise, or embellishment: the naked facts; naked ambition.

• Truth: Conformity to fact or actuality. Sincerity, integrity.

Then I offered my own definition of “The Naked Truth About Who We Are and What It Means”: Being without concealment about what we do, why we do it, and how we do it. Offering facts about how our news organization works with sincerity and integrity.

During the session, participants talked about the steps they might take if it were brought to their attention that someone on their staff had fabricated a story. While they differed on the approach they might take, a number of them indicated they would try to be as open about the situation inside — and outside — their organization as they felt appropriate.

I stressed that transparency helps make news organizations more credible. It helps the public understand what journalists do and why they do it. And it makes journalists more accountable to one another and to those outside the newsroom.

Tim Franklin, when he was the Orlando Sentinel editor, spoke about transparency when he attended a Poynter-hosted conference called “Journalism without Scandal.”

Franklin, now the Baltimore Sun editor, elaborated on that point when he wrote an article for the Poynter Report: “Coming Clean: Demystifying Journalism.”  In that piece, he explained why he believes transparency is such an important issue for news organizations today.

Drawing upon his suggestions, I adapted his work and wrote up seven steps that I thought might serve as a guide for ombudsmen to consider. Here they are:

  1. Inform readers where news information comes from.

  2. Make the newsroom and news staff accessible to readers.

  3. Show readers where to send corrections.

  4. Write a weekly column that explains how news organizations work.

  5. Seek new ways to connect and communicate with readers, viewers and other consumers of news.

  6. Encourage open and honest staff communication.

  7. Hold the news organization and its staff accountable.

These suggestions represent only a start on a path that could help make news organizations more credible. If you have more ideas, feel free to share them with us.

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Aly Colón is the John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Previously, Colón led…
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