Transparency Isn’t Just for Journalists
Over the weekend the New York Times’s public editor, Clark Hoyt, reviewed several recent articles in which the Times didn’t do enough to ask about or disclose people’s interest in events they were commenting about as expert sources. Former Homeland Security director Michael Chertoff advocated full-body scans in airports but didn’t volunteer that he’s a consultant to a company that makes scanners. Former diplomat Peter Galbraith wrote op-eds advocating for a strong and independent Kurdistan, but didn’t mention that he stands to make gobs of money from his ties to a Norwegian oil company operating there. And so forth.
“The cases raised timeless issues for journalists and sources about what readers have a right to know and whose responsibility it is to find it out or disclose it,” Hoyt writes, adding that “the ideal expert source is entirely independent, with no stake in an outcome. But in reality, the most informed sources often have involvements, which is why they know what they know. Readers are entitled to disclosure so they can decide if there is a conflict that would affect the credibility of the information.”
Yes, obviously — and from there, Hoyt explores where the fault lies for not making that information plain. Were the reporters negligent in not ferreting out those interests? Or were the sources deficient in not volunteering such information?
Hoyt decides the burden falls on both, which is both common sense and good journalistic practice, and I was amused to learn that reporter Eric Lipton has posted a reminder on his computer: “Ask if hired gun.” (I think we can assume he phrases the question differently.) But while reporters should of course doubt, and inquire, and inquire again, I think this is one case where the emerging standards of transparency actually help journalists.
The most interesting response to Hoyt’s questioning came from Chertoff. Asked about not volunteering his interest in full-body scanners, Chertoff said it was no secret that his risk-management firm, the Chertoff Group, had corporate clients and that it was up to the reporters who interviewed him to ask whether he had ties to the industry. “I always answer when I’m asked,” he told Hoyt. “But I don’t think it is my obligation to put myself in the head of a reporter.” Chertoff added that when he’s “affirmatively getting out there” — such as when he wrote a New Year’s Day op-ed for the Washington Post — he makes it his business to disclose such interests.
This always would have seemed disingenuous, but it strikes me as out-and-out dishonest according to the emerging standards of the online world.
The Web is changing the rules of journalism, and one of the biggest arguments is about objectivity and transparency for journalists. As I’ve explored before, social media is changing the way we interact with each other: We now expect to know far more about casual acquaintances and even strangers than we once would have, and — as is always the case in such situations — the objections of those who think the greater privacy of the past is worth preserving aren’t being rejected so much as technological change is rendering them irrelevant.
Journalists, believe it or not, are people too, and so this mammoth social change is forcing them to re-evaluate their traditional role as ostensibly neutral observers. Journalists can no longer dwell in a cloister, holding themselves aloof from discussion and revealing nothing about their personal lives — again, not because journalistic rules are changing, but because social rules are. That’s put a strain on the ideal of objectivity, and led to the enshrinement of transparency instead: Tell us who you are, what your interests are and what you believe, so that we can assess the information you’ve brought us accordingly and begin the process of dialogue and debate. (My take on transparency’s limits is here.)
Sources are affected by this change too. The two-way nature of the Web has blurred the lines between journalists, sources and the audience, and this sea change is generally seen as empowering sources and the audience while diminishing the importance of journalists. Which is basically correct, but doesn’t tell the whole story.
Sources can now break their own news, post their own versions of stories, and publish their own accounts of their dealings with journalists, complete with interview transcripts and even recordings. But they don’t get to have it both ways — with those opportunities comes the demand that they play by the same rules of transparency governing everybody else. (To borrow Cody Brown’s model, expert sources whose interests aren’t disclosed are part of the old, opaque magic box of news.) Which is where Chertoff’s “you didn’t ask” defense breaks down, and makes him look like a weasel. Transparency is the new black for Michael Chertoff, too.
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