Transparency: Shedding light on the journalism process

(The original version of this entry was written by Emily Panetta)

To be transparent is to be easily understood - to be obvious, evident, distinct, explicit or manifest. Applying this concept to journalism, transparency becomes the degree to which a journalist makes clear to the audience a wide range of factors, such as personal biases, motivation for chasing a story, and the rationale for going about the matter in the way one did. Transparency, in effect, enables an audience to choose to what extent the reporter’s version of an issue or event may be biased or skewed.

Gene Foreman cites a proposal from William Powers of the National Journal "that news organizations post their staff members’ biases online so the audience could take them into account” (Foreman 137). While this may seem like an unconventional and extreme method of revealing a journalist’s personal biases, the important message is that this sort of policy is receiving attention and is open for debate. While reporter’s biases are addressed elsewhere (see "Objectivity" and "Personal connections to the story") this entry will focus on transparency regarding the news making process in the presentation of content.

A useful starting point (though its relevance will not be immediately apparent) is the idea of the public interest, or the idea that the public has a “right to know” certain things. This idea can be interpreted in a number of ways. In a class discussion, independent documentary producer Robin Benger distinguished the public’s right to know from fundamental human rights – such as shelter, water, food, love and respect. he characterized "right to know" as an awareness of one’s surrounding world. In essence, news should represent and be available and accessible to people from all walks of life.

With that said, there are journalists who use the public’s right to know as justification for resorting for unconventional and sometimes unethical or unlawful methods to create a story. For example, the Globe and Mail’s 2006 Maid for a Month series by Jan Wong, involved undercover reporting; a process that required Wong to deceive her employers and coworkers for the duration of the stint. Many people, including Wong herself, felt that deception was justified because she was reporting on a matter of public interest.

This example is presented, not to explore the separate question of deception of sources, but to illustrate how the concept of the public’s right to know is viewed as an underlying principle in journalism. In this particular case, as in many others, the journalists involved felt that the public's right to know the reality of struggles associated with life on minimum wage outweighed rights to privacy and the duty to be truthful with sources.

But it seems that while many journalists believe the public has a right to know about public policy issues, government affairs, business negotiations, scientific research and other matters, that commitment to shining light dos not extend to the process that turns the issue into a story – the journalist’s method; how and why the subject arose. Where did the story idea come from and who provided the statistics? Why was a particular expert selected to weigh in on the topic and why not his colleague or competitor? How do the journalists know what they know?

In focusing primarily on increasing the transparency of societal institutions and public affairs, the journalism process itself remains opaque. Writing about this lack of transparency in the American Journalism Review, Rachel Smolkin stated: “It's unfair, even hypocritical, for the media to try to play by different rules, to ignore public demands for accountability that we would insist on from anyone else.”

Journalism seems sometimes to be viewed as a hidden craft rather than a realm for controversy and debate. At the Eighth Annual Aspen Institute Conference on Journalism and Society, held on July 16-18, 2004 in Aspen Colarado, the deteriorating state of journalism was discussed. A document summarizing the conference stated “high-profile cases of journalistic dishonesty in the past 20 years have hurt the field’s general credibility” (Ziomek, 7). Proposals to restore public trust in the media included developing “strategies for enhancing public knowledge and engagement that demystify journalistic practices and clarify journalistic values” (23). In essence, it was agreed that in order to improve the state of journalism, increasing transparency in presentation ought to be a priority.

The remainder of this essay will focus on the relevance of transparency to the current state of journalism. The discussion will shift to what has been reviewed in the literature in terms of transparency in journalistic practice, followed by practical examples that demonstrate both transparency in reporting, and a lack thereof. A discussion of possible changes to the news-making process in order to promote transparent reporting, will ensue. Such changes might, in effect, foster responsible communication and improve the integrity of journalism – thereby changing and the public’s attitude towards it.

But before moving forward, let us assess how far we have come. It is established that transparency in journalism is reporting in such a way that provides the reader or viewer with the tools to decide for him or herself, what to make of a story. It has also been established that, “Journalists owe their primary loyalty to the audience – the readers, listeners, viewers and online users” (Foreman 138), and as such, the majority of reporting is dedicated to matters of public interest. And if responsible communication in matters of public interest is the ideal in terms of producing ethically sound journalism, then one might argue that being transparent with regard to content – and how we know what we know – is an imperative.

In their highly regarded book.The Elements of Journalism. Kovach and Rosenstiel consider transparency in terms of methods and motives to be one of the five intellectual principles of a science of reporting. “If journalists are truth seekers, it must follow that they be honest and truthful with their audience too – that they be truth presenters. If nothing else, this responsibility requires that journalists be as open and honest with audiences as they can about what they know and what they don’t” (92).

Kovach and Rosenstiel go on to propose the method for living up to the primary responsibility of being honest and truthful, stating that journalists ought to:

"...reveal as much as possible about [their] 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 spirit of transparency. We consider this idea the most important single element in creating a better discipline of verification." (92)

This idea of verification is not reserved solely for journalism. Say a teenage girl hears a crazy story and immediately phones her best friend to share the details. After expressing disbelief at the unbelievable chain of events, the best friend inevitably asks, “How do you know this? Who told you?” Before buying into the story, the friend wants to assess the reliability of the source. If the original informant was the first girl’s pathological-liar younger brother, the validity of the news in question is compromised and the story loses its impact. This is the essence of verification.

Being open about one’s sources leads into what Kovachs and Rosenstiel described as transparency’s “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” (92).

Transparent reporting is made simple when the journalist can give a direct reference to the person who gave him or her the information. For example, after a city hall meeting, a councillor explicitly states, “The city’s community centres will see major increases in funding over the next year.” By referring to the councillor who made the statement, the reporter allows the reader to assess the information's credibility. If the councillor is typically full of bologna, then what he or she says will likely be regarded as such – but the journalist need not infer that point.

Before racing to break a story about an announcement – of impending improvements to community centres throughout the city – the journalist should go beyond what is known to create a complete account of what was not said. With regard to transparency, the journalist should make efforts to clarify for the audience what is unknown. In this particular instance, the journalist might emphasize that there is currently no evidence of a plan to increase community centre funds, no other councillor weighed in on the issue, or no details were specified in terms of where this funding will come from. In this way, beyond knowing who made the statement, the reader knows the limitations on what was said.

Attributing information is no less less important when the content comes from scientific research. "Much of statistics involves attitude or policy rather than numbers," Victor Cohn has written. "And much, at least much of the statistics that reporters can readily apply, is good sense.” (Adam and Clark, 194). Employing Cohn’s strategy, it is essential for journalists (and their audience) to determine whose data they are processing, and how might these numbers be skewed.

Say a health publication receives statistical information showing malnutrition is on the rise, particularly amongst the elderly. The notification that contains the statistical evidence comes from a public relations company, which offers to arrange a meeting time for the publication to interview their client -- a dietician who specializes in nutrition for geriatric patients. The dietician works for Nutrients“R”Us and coincidentally, Nutrients“R”Us recently released a new product – a nutrient supplement for the elderly. It can be assumed that the timing of this tip is not a matter of coincidence, but inevitably, the dietician has an agenda.

One could reasonably argue that there is a story here, though the journalists should verify the accuracy of the statistics and information provided by the dietician. The principle of transparency demands that the journalist should provide information about the players involved – and their potential motives. The report should explicitly state that Nutrients“R”Us's initiative to address malnutrition amongst older individuals comes in conjunction with the release of its new dietary supplement for the elderly.

In similar situations, where research makes up the meat of the story, the journalist must determine: Who is conducting the research? Who is funding the research? Is there a possible conflict of interest to consider? Presenting this information allows readers to assess the conflict of interest, without depriving them of otherwise valuable information, which “makes transparency the best protection against errors and deception by sources. If the best information a journalist has comes from a potentially biased source, naming the source will reveal to the audience the possible bias of the information – and may inhibit the source from deceiving as well” (Kovach and Rosenstiel 92).

This approach is in line with Shapiro's view that, "...a reader should know, or at least be able to guess with confidence, how you came up with and verified the story as a whole and the individual facts within it. Where a reader might be asking, 'How can the writer know this?' you should be asking either the same question, or this one: 'How can I tell this more clearly?'" (Shapiro 302)
Shapiro goes on to describe such difficulties embedded in journalism as the competing interests between fulfilling business obligations with ensuring truthfulness to subject, sources and readers – which make this seemingly idiot-proof method of transparency, not so. In one case Shapiro described – a story about the transition from life on the streets to life in public housing – he could not deliver on what he promised his editor. As a result, the story was killed for lack of the happy ending the publication sought.

While in theory journalists should go into a story without a preconceived idea of how it is going to play out, this is seldom the case in practice. So if journalists are to meet the challenge of delivering honest and transparent reports, they must accept as a duty not only to let all the relevant facts be known (whether or not they fit the starting hypothesis), but to overcome the stigma associated with admitting what they do not know - and accepting the limitations of the craft. There is no shame in conveying to the audience that “there is no evidence to support this claim” or “no conclusion can be made at this time”. In Lincoln Steffens’ perspective, the task of reporter is “to find the truth and thereby change the world” (Schudson 241). And so long as the truth is out there, the journalist’s job is never complete.


Adam, G. Stuart, and Roy Peter Clark. Journalism: The Democratic Craft. Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.

Benger, Robin. Independent documentary producer. Class Discussion. October 19, 2010.

Foreman, Gene. The Ethical Journalist. United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.

Grant v. Torstar Corp., 2009 SCC 61. Web.

Hodgson v. Canadian Newspapers (1998), 39 O.R. (3d) 235 (Gen. Div.); varied (2000), 49 O.R. (3d) 161 (C.A.) [leave to SCC denied]. Web.

Jobb, Dean. Media Law for Canadian Journalists. Toronto: Emond Montgomery Publications Limited, 2006. Print.

Kovach, Bill and Tom Rosenstiel. The Elements of Journalism. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007. Print.

Schudson, Michael. Chapter 11: "What is a reporter?" Media, Myths, and Narratives: Television and the Press edited by James W. Carey. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1988. Web.

Shapiro, Ivor. Chapter 10: Truth and the Storyteller: Ethics in Non-fiction. The bigger picture: elements of feature writing. Toronto: Edmond Mongomery, 2009. Online.

Smolkin, Rachel. “Too Transparent?” American Journalism Review, 2006. Web.

Webster’s Online Dictionary. Web. 22 Oct. 2010. Web.

Wong, Jan. “Maid for a Month.” Globe and Mail, 2006. Web.

Wong, Jan. Phone Interview. October, 2010.

Ziomek, Jon. “Journalism, Transparency and the Public Trust: A Report of the Eighth Annual Conference on Journalism and Society. Queenstown, Maryland: The Aspen Institute, 2005. Web.

Subject Author Replies Views Last Message
No Comments