For News Organizations, Transparency is the New Objectivity

    by David Cohn
    September 15, 2009

    Back in the spring, I made an analogy about journalism being a game of chess. On the chess  board of journalism, content is King (the most important piece) but collaboration is Queen (the most powerful piece).

    To extend the analogy further: transparency is the board itself.


    Unfortunately, freelancing is a horribly antiquated system. It works behind
    closed doors. Independent freelancers are left out in the cold and have to build personal relationships with editors to get any paid work.

    These relationships are always one-to-one. This make it an outdated model. It made perfect sense 30 years ago, but now it needs to be re-thought. That will only happen when the process of journalism, including the business processes of news organizations comes out from under its cloak.


    It was in conversations with Steve Katz that I realized one of the breakthroughs of Spot.Us is that we help make the process of journalism transparent.

    Traditionally, news organizations are transparent with their finished work. “Extra, extra, read all about it.”

    That is necessary but in my opinion it is no longer sufficient.

    If transparency is the new objectivity — more than our finished product must be revealed.

    In a discussion with another editor last week I realized another transparency boundary Spot.Us is pushing on organizations that collaborate with us: We force them to be transparent about where they spend their money with freelancers.

    Freelancing is outdated

    Thirty years ago, I would probably snail mail my pitches to editors with a self-addressed envelope inside so editors could write me back. Today the Internet allows freelancers to email pitches. But that seems to be the ONLY evolution in the process. Our communication in the process of procuring work, writing stories and editing stories is faster, but fundamentally happens in one-to-one relationships. The public never sees this. Nor do they see the pain of waiting — which was the topic of one of my earliest blog posts from 2005 — for responses, edits, or checks.

    Here’s what I wrote last week to the editor: “To work with Spot.Us you have to be
    transparent about where you would spend your freelance budget. Every organization that works with Spot.Us is transparent about where they are putting their dollars or at least where they are putting their editorial efforts.”

    The editor responded that it would be scary to make an editor’s freelance budget so public.

    That’s exactly the point!

    We are supposed to shine a light on other industries, public and
    private. How can we be expected to be a public beacon if we ourselves hide behind a veil of secrecy?

    Some valid counterpoints

    As always, I want to push boundaries but recognize that some aren’t going to go anywhere. A few reasons why.

    1. The process of journalism (editing, re-writing, etc.) is boring. We
      can make it transparent for the nerds who are interested, but let’s not scare our audience off. Also: If you are investigating the mafia you don’t need to title that in your Spot.Us pitch (I’m not THAT young and naive).
    2. It takes energy to be transparent. Just because an organization
      isn’t transparent doesn’t mean they are nefarious — it simply means there’s 2,134,241 other things that they’re focused on instead of this issue.
    3. You tell me!

    I recognize I come at this from one extreme. I believe transparency
    is the new objectivity and that news organizations are hurting in part because as large institutions they are ill-equipped to be transparent. Here’s how they are ill-equipped:

    1. They are ill-equipped to be transparent in their personalities: It’s okay to have a voice. Personally, I’m sick of the traditional news voice. But it’s the only one they have.
    2. They are ill-equipped to be transparent in their editorial processes. Distributed reporting is an emerging art and large news organizations  have yet to master it. (For some good examples of distributed reporting, see NewAssignment.Net, OffTheBus.Net, ProPublica’s efforts and this Nieman Journalism article.)
    3. They are ill-equipped to be transparent in their business processes. Distributed funding is also an emerging field. (See Spot.Us, ReelChanges.org, Global For Me.)
    4. They are ill-equipped to be transparent in their day-to-day operations: It’s a dream of mine — a newsroom cafe.

    As always: I say this not to be an “anti-old media” person. That’s
    not what I’m about. I bring it up in an effort to point to areas where I see room (and need) for improvement.

    Tagged: freelance journalism funding news process spot.us transparency

    7 responses to “For News Organizations, Transparency is the New Objectivity”

    1. I’m not sure that I see why news agencies should be held to the same standard as public officials who are spending taxpayer money. The reason that government should be transparent is that they work for US. You journalists are not public servants. Many of you work in the private sector. And the privately owned private sector which is another kettle of fish.

      Many publicly-traded companies are held to a high standard of transparency since they are also spending other people’s (in this case, shareholders’) money. And of course, in the recent years, many of these companies became partially or wholly owned by the government so more transparency is required.

    2. Digidave says:


      I think that is a fair point. But I am sure you realize I’m not the first one to say the following.

      Journalism is the fourth estate [of our government].
      Our Democracy will rise and fall with the free press.

      Etc, etc, etc – pick your quote.

      Even without all the idealizing of journalism… Civic reporting is a service – and if I was personally given the choice between a service provider who practices what they preach and one who doesn’t – I’d go with the one who does.

      So not only is their a moral argument – there is a business argument there too.

    3. Mark says:

      There is also another element of transparerncy that wasn’t spoken about in this article. And that is the one that the judicial system has made as it’s standard for getting witnesses to be transparent on the witness stand. The one in which journalists will “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. There is a reason that the court system has witnesses make an oath of this nature. It’s easy to fulfill one of these three elements and not the other two and still not be transparent or completely honest. But if someone is going to pledge all three elements together and be honest in fulfilling, it is impossible to not be transparent. This is my challenge to ALL of the news media. To have a “free press” doesn’t automatically mean that the press is a virtuous entity.

    4. Mike Silva says:

      OK, maybe some transparency would be a good thing, in the sense that it would be nice to have fewer stories peppered with anonymous sources, who’s axe to grind you can’t discern, because you don’t know who they are. However, mainstream news organizations aren’t in trouble because people want transparency into the minute detail of the editing process.

      Why is it so hard for people in the media to recognize that people don’t pay attention to them, because they write stories without scoring which side is the most full of shit? There still is an objective truth to be found about issues, and if the media isn’t going to help find it, what’s the point of reading what they write? It’s just echoing blather. Giving people a view into how you and your editor wordsmith the blather echoing doesn’t make them more interested in subscribing to your paper.

      Bloggers are eating the newspapers for lunch, precisely because bloggers make their bias obvious, but also strive to attain credibility by negating the bias by linking to research and analysis which can ad credence to their claims or refute those of the other side. Further, they actively use the Internet to provide people links to inconsistent past statements by a party, which helps the reader evaluate whether that party is are a credible speaker in the present.

      Traditional media outlets these days are sorely lacking in providing such scoring and context, lest they get pegged as taking sides. They mistake letting people make wild claims on either side, for being objective. But what readers want is a paper that has a record of being right about who is wrong. It makes the research burden of being a good citizen a hell of a lot easier.

      Maybe people are happy to read he-said she-said celebrity gossip stories, but when it comes to things that matter, why would people read a paper if it’s not going to help you form an opinion about the actual objective truth of the matter? If the mainstream media won’t provide a reality check, thoughtful people might as well read a blog, and click through the links to see if what is said holds up. (Admittedly, with varying degrees of success at discerning the quality of supporting evidence.) While the less thoughtful, or merely lazy, will simply neglect to have a fundamental grasp on important issues of the day and pass time on celebrity gossip and dumb sensationalized stories. They can mainline that kind of pablum in bulk online for free. Either way, no need to pay for fancy papers.

    5. David Cohn says:

      @Mike Silva

      I actually think we are in total agreement.

      1. People don’t care as much about the in’s and out’s of reporting as journalists think they do. As fun as we think it is – other people don’t.

      2. You describe the way bloggers are eating newspapers for lunch and a big part of it, you say, is that they will link to other sources or link to whatever sources it is they are reading/researching.

      That’s transparency.

      Newspapers still don’t do this well. In part because, as you note, they feel the need to be “objective.”

      My point (really stolen from David Wineberger) is that “transparency is the new objectivity.”

      THAT’S what people want

    6. Mike Silva says:


      I think we agree in part.

      My point is that newspapers are getting their lunch eaten mostly because the majority of readers feel reporters don’t make clear which side’s argument is most truthful. Not because bloggers ‘show their work’, as math professors are want to say. While certainly a segment of readers would like it to be easier to see where writers went for their research, your “transparency”, most would like to simply use their newspaper as a CliffsNotes for making informed decisions about the issue of the day, so they can be a good citizen.

      OK, in this rather lazy case “informed” means substituting the reader following along with research and thinking copiously about the details, with trusting reporters to present reality as faithfully as possible. But it seems that if reporters actually do the job, a democratic society can still creak along with an electorate of people either too lazy or too busy to do their own homework.

      Bloggers win merely because they make a judgment call about what’s right. The fact that you can check whether the blogger has a leg to stand on is a nice bonus, but not a requirement. Papers would be read again if they evaluated the sides of an issue, and merely established a good track record of making the right call about who’s right, transparency or not.

    7. “We are supposed to shine a light on other industries, public and private. How can we be expected to be a public beacon if we ourselves hide behind a veil of secrecy?”

      Solid point to a very solid article. The points you make in regards to the difficulties are spot on, especially in the day to day activities sector.


      I tend to agree with Mike that a strength of bloggers is that it is so easy to click on links to check their sources.

  • Who We Are

    MediaShift is the premier destination for insight and analysis at the intersection of media and technology. The MediaShift network includes MediaShift, EducationShift, MetricShift and Idea Lab, as well as workshops and weekend hackathons, email newsletters, a weekly podcast and a series of DigitalEd online trainings.

    About MediaShift »
    Contact us »
    Sponsor MediaShift »
    MediaShift Newsletters »

    Follow us on Social Media