An Ethical Argument for Transparency in Journalism

    by David Cohn
    July 22, 2010

    In a recent post on my website I examined an ethical argument for transparency. I
    will continue this internal dialogue with the caveat that I am not a
    journalism academic. I do not prescribe my beliefs to anyone but myself.
    This is a disgustingly theoretical post (I promise the next one will be
    practical up the wahzoo
    ). I should also note the inspiration behind
    these two posts was a discussion at FOO Camp: Philosophy and Technology –
    Tim O’Reilly and Damon Horowitz.

    The First Chapter


    The first post on this topic hinged on the idea that transparency is necessary for public participation in journalism.

    This Wikipedia quote
    puts it bluntly. The argument for transparency then isn’t ethical so
    much as practical. It’s a second order argument. The process of
    journalism must be transparent if we expect people to participate in a
    meaningful way. This assumes, however, that we want people to

    If we can reason that participation in journalism is ethical and
    transparency is necessary for participation to occur, it follows that
    there is an ethical argument for transparency.

    Which means the next step is to examine the base of this syllogism:
    There is an ethical argument for participation in journalism.

    The Goal of Journalism

    What is the purpose or goal of journalism? In philosophy I might pose this as, what is journalism’s Telos — its purpose, aim, end and/or design.

    The reason this question (and blog post) is important is that if you look at the current understanding of ethics in journalism
    you can see that it is more along the lines of a professional code than
    an ethical debate or analysis. Public accountability is mentioned in many of the existing code of ethics. As is the rightful dissemination of
    information to the public. But in almost all of these cannons of
    journalism the public is acted upon and is rarely an actor.

    When I ask what is the goal of journalism I am not interested in the
    journalism industry or a journalism company. The goal for both of which
    would be the same for any industry (protecting itself as an economic
    good) or company (increasing revenue).

    The tagline for my blog is “journalism is a process, not a product,”
    and that continues to be my rallying cry. Too often our ethics, ideas
    of success and end goals are determined by journalism as a product,
    industry or company. I am more interested in the process of journalism.
    What is the end goal for an act of journalism?

    Now here I have to posit a question: If an act of journalism is committed but never published, is it an act of journalism?

    Many people don’t know this, but I used to be a musician. I’ve
    actually recorded at least two albums. But I never promoted my work. So if a work of art is not shared,
    is it art? What is the distinction between art and hobby? Related: If
    an act of reporting occurs but is not shared, is it journalism? What is
    the distinction between journalism and journaling?

    I ask this question because it gives me the platform to pose a
    possible end goal of journalism — to inform. Journalism, which is a
    tricky thing to define, is the process of collecting, filtering and
    distributing information that has meaning. One caveat of course is that the
    information is non-fiction (true and accurate).

    If we take away the “distributing” of information we no longer have
    the process of journalism. It is the final step in the process because
    it is the final Telos of journalism — to inform our fellow human beings.
    Size of the audience aside, journalism is fundamentally a process of
    education. But when we look at the conversation about journalism, those two words are most
    often coupled around journalism education (journalism schools) and rarely
    about how the two endeavors are intimately tied.

    Informing is Participatory

    So the goal of journalism is to inform people about events
    in the world. This is fundamentally a social act and would remain the
    goal of journalism if we lived in a democracy, republic or any other
    kind of society.

    Historically speaking, the “participation” of journalism consumers was to consume. That is a form of participation, but not
    necessarily the kind that I wan to justify. If it were,
    this blog post could have been much shorter: “We can justify
    transparency in journalism because people need to be able to read it!”

    The kind of participation that I want to argue for is more engaging.
    Members of the public are not participating by the sheer act of be
    informed, but they are self-informing. It’s the difference between roads that
    make public transportation possible and roads that make all forms of
    transportation possible.

    Why Individual Participation is Ethical

    And herein lies the base of this whole thought process. It comes down
    to the individual. It is the individual, as part of a collective, that
    journalism seeks to inform. The individual should be actively
    participating in the dissemination of information for several reasons:

    1. On a utilitarian level, they will become more informed and help
    inform more people. If the good of journalism is to inform, then letting
    more people participate will inform more people. Similarly, the mission of
    roads is to enable travel/transportation, not to safeguard public transportation. (There could be
    unintended consequences, of source, such as pollution.) The
    mission of journalism is to inform, not to safeguard journalism companies. A
    network has infinity more connections and that requires active
    participation and self-informed informants.

    2. They have a moral right as an individual to participate to the
    extent that they do not hinder others from participating. (See individualism).


    So, to review:

    • Transparency is required for well-informed participation to happen.
    • Participation is needed because….
    • Journalism’s end goal is to inform other people.
    • More people participating in the process of journalism means more people being informed.
    • Combine this with individual rights and …

    The journalism industry has a moral obligation to make the practices
    and processes of journalism more transparent so that the larger
    citizenry can participate.

    Behind the lack of climax

    Perhaps I could have shortened this blog post. I made every attempt to go step-by-step and lay out my line or reasoning.


    Too often our discussion of participatory journalism, citizen
    journalism, etc takes an industry or company view. Either citizen
    journalism is good or bad because of its relationship to a bottom line.

    Slighter better arguments are that participatory journalism is good/bad because of its quality (or lack of).

    What I’m suggesting is that participation in the media is a net positive because of its intrinsic value.

    Tagged: ethics journalism participatory journalism transparency

    4 responses to “An Ethical Argument for Transparency in Journalism”

    1. Ron Ross says:

      The purpose of journalism: To inform. Good enough for me. I also like your focus on individual responsibility. It’s a concept we seem to be rapidly loosing in our culture today.

    2. Thanks very much for this post. Working through what journalism is for should be the crux of every conversation about our future! (revealing my roots as a hopeless academic).

      As much as I value your argument, I want to suggest an alternative. I think the purpose of journalism is more than “to inform” for the following reasons:

      (1) People don’t need more information these days — they are swimming in it! It’s a hard sell to argue that we’re a vital function if we are providing something they think they already have too much of.

      (2) As much as you’ve laid out an argument for why informing requires participation, the act of informing is a one-way transaction, not an interactive process. I inform you, we’re done.

      (3) Research indicates that people aren’t very well informed despite the boatloads of information and journalism they might come in contact with. Internal filters, experiences, biases, interests means that despite our best efforts, Americans score alarmingly low on many measures of knowledge. If our purpose is to inform, what does that say about our effectiveness? Or the possibility of being effective, if people are [partially] hardwired to ignore information that doesn’t match pre-conceived notions?

      (4) When we consider the significant problems facing our communities today — from schools to bridges to gridlock, you name it — the solution to all of these is much more than “more information.”

      What does journalism offer? A way for diverse community members to come together to solve public problems. It’s a way to identify issues, brainstorm solutions, consider trade-offs, imagine alternatives, work towards resolution. In other words, I think the purpose of journalism is to engage in addressing community issues, with a wide sense of what “community” can constitute.

      Sometimes informing is an important part of engaging about an issue or a place, but we are most proud of journalism when it actually results in some positive action by someone. If we measure our excellence by the degree to which it generates change or improvement, then isn’t the change what we’re really about?

    3. A good example of what you’re talking about, David, is how so many journalists (editors in particular) say they want to “tell a story”. It’s so ingrained that a colorless 500-word piece about the trite rehearsed things said at a press conference is still called a story.

      Contrary to what we thought, journalism isn’t just about telling a story. It’s about transparency, about making the world viewable, comprehensible, and about making us capable of acting in it. Journalism is *the act* of transparency, and that can happen with a story, with raw data shared well, through archives, or even, as the Post’s “Top Secret America” series shows, through all those things simultaneously.

    4. David Cohn says:


      I think you bring up valid points. But, if I may play devil’s advocate to your devil’s advocate.

      The distinctions you are bringing up are more about the difference between run-of-the-mill journalism and great journalism.

      The first point being a good example.

      1. Yes, people are swimming in lots of information. During the World Series there are TOO many journalists on the scene and they write 50 versions of the same story. If the definition of journalism was to be the FIRST to put information out into the world – then only one of these reporters would be doing journalism – the rest would be…. writers.

      But I don’t think that’s the case. Each one is doing journalism (let’s overlook that it’s a waste of resources).

      But when somebody produces a story that has unique and valuable information it is GOOD journalism. As opposed to run-of-the-mill journalism. But in the post above – I’m not trying to make a distinction between those two – just pointing out a bare minimum. A general umbrella definition.

      Same with 2, 3, and 4 above. I think those are all GREAT things that journalist should strive for and I think what you are pointing out could be the difference between journalism and GREAT journalism. But, for me at least, they aren’t the defining factors for an act of journalism (and again – these are just for me, I am no academic, just a stickler for definitions sometimes).

  • 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