Why Journalists Should Use Transparency as a Tool to Deepen Engagement

    by Josh Stearns
    August 31, 2015
    Photo by Marian Sievers and used here with Creative Commons license.

    When we talk about transparency in journalism we tend to discuss it in terms of the people and institutions we cover, or as an alternative to unrealistic notions of objectivity. However, transparency can also be a tool for fostering deeper community engagement with journalism, and a fundamental part of how we make the case for why we should support local news and quality reporting.

    Changes in business models, publishing technologies and audience expectations demand we embrace a more open approach. Much of the work of journalism has traditionally happened behind closed doors, and so the public has no idea what it takes to report a story or sustain a newsroom. If journalism wants to make the case that it is valuable, it has to start showing its work. Transparency can’t just be a value journalists hold others to, it must be a virtue we embody as well.

    "If journalism wants to make the case that it is valuable, it has to start showing its work. "

    1) Embracing A Radically Transparent Reporting Process

    In 2013, the Poynter Institute published The New Ethics of Journalism and replaced “Act Independently” with “Be Transparent.” Kelly McBride, a co-editor of that book, wrote that “News organizations want to be […] trusted advisors. To do that, they need to embrace radical transparency, where they explain every decision they make.” This kind of transparency is still rare, but I’ve seen some good examples of news organizations giving audiences a look behind the curtain to see how editorial decisions are made.”


    However, as Dan Gillmor notes in his book Mediactive, the relationship between trust and transparency is complex. “Greater transparency will lead your audience to trust you more even while they may believe you less,” he writes. Put another way, our transparency may engender more trust even as it encourages more skepticism.

    2) Active Transparency For Deep Engagement

    Transparency is also increasingly necessary and valuable as part of emerging practices in community engagement. Newsrooms can’t expect to build meaningful relationships with their communities if they continue to operate at an arms distance (or further) from that community. Last month Anthony De Rosa suggested that publishers should let readers see how a story changed over time, perhaps by toggling a track changes button on the story. “This transparency builds greater trust between the reader and the publisher,” De Rosa writes. “It also reclaims something that is becoming lost when readers are led to many places through social media rather than relying on a single publication: loyalty.” (See also De Rosa’s piece in the LA Times on this topic)

    3) Emerging Technology Demands Greater Transparency

    Photo by Roger H. Goun on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by Roger H. Goun on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.


    The rapid changes in technology, both in reporting and consuming the news, also demands greater openness from newsrooms and journalists. As an industry we are immersed in new tools that shift our practices. Projects like Source and Storybench are useful repositories of knowledge, documenting how journalists are using emerging technology. At the recent SRCCON, Chris Amico argued that journalists should “Use every part of the pig,” describing how “open notebook reporting and structured journalism” can make use of more of our reporting materials by putting them in the hands of our communities. I have written previously about how transparency around fact checking and verification can be a tool in community engagement too.

    At the heart of all of these models of transparency is the goal of building trust. In 2011 longtime editor Melanie Sill wrote, “As the web matures, newspeople and others can make a conceptual leap that puts journalism fully in service to citizens and consumers and returns respect and value to the work and those who do it.” For Sill, the core of that leap was new modes of trust rooted not in authority but in transparency, responsiveness and participation. That same year, Dan Sinker, the director of the Knight Mozilla OpenNews project, said “the philosophy of working in the open,” exemplified by the moto “show your work,” was one of the most important shifts in how newsrooms operated.

    4) New Modes of Transparency for New Models of Sustainability

    Photo by jon jablonsky and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by
    jon jablonsky
    and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Recommitting to transparency and redefining journalism as a service to community is also critical today because an increasing number of news organizations are asking the public to support their work through donations, membership programs, apps and more. Revenue models rooted in events and crowdfunding often force newsrooms to make the case as to why people should support their work or why they should show up for an event. For some newsrooms, this can be a painful process but in the end many journalists I talk to are stunned by the support and feedback they get when they open themselves up to their community. In fact, at a recent summit on membership models for news, a representative from Kickstarter noted that one of the most popular rewards for Kickstarter donors is behind the scenes access to journalists and media makers.

    In this context, transparency is not only about building trust but also about illustrating to our communities the kind of labor involved in doing meaningful journalism. I recently got to hear Andrea Bernstein and Matt Katz, two WNYC reporters, describe the reporting process behind their Peabody award winning series on NJ Governor Chris Christie. It was a stunning tale that deepened my appreciation for their work; WNYC should share that story with their audience.

    When we conceal the work of reporting, then journalism just appears on the screen or the page or the doorstep. Why would people support something they don’t understand, or value something when they don’t see the craft behind it? With most people facing a flood of information every day, transparency is becoming a critical building block fostering stronger, more trustworthy relationships between newsrooms and the audience.

    Josh Stearns directs the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation’s journalism sustainability project, designed to develop new structures and strategies to support a robust future of news. Prior to joining the Dodge staff, Josh spent 7 years running national advocacy campaigns in support of freedom of expression and media diversity. Most recently he served as Press Freedom Director at Free Press, a national nonprofit fighting for all people’s rights to connect and communicate. Josh is an award winning journalist and the author of numerous reports on local news, public media and media policy. His articles have appeared online at the Columbia Journalism Review, PBS MediaShift, Orion Magazine and BoingBoing. He is a founding board member of the Freedom of the Press Foundation and served for almost 10 years on the board of the Student Conservation Association. Find him on Twitter at @jcstearns.

    Tagged: audience engagement ethics journalism ethics Source storybench sustainability transparency transparency in journalism

    4 responses to “Why Journalists Should Use Transparency as a Tool to Deepen Engagement”

    1. We’ve been transparent since the beginning. Stories might start with a thanks to the person who provided the tip; we “show our work” whenever we can, “we found this in the xx, after we spotted a hint in the xx; we checked with xx, who said …” One side benefit of this for “the people formerly known as the audience” is that they also learn how to find information. Our city, for example, has taken baby steps toward more accessibility for information such as land-use files, but we’ve long since pointed people to those files, explained further in comment-section discussions (one of many reasons NOT to drop your comment section!), and learned a lot from “readers” who take the research further. And an important part of transparency: LINK, LINK, LINK. If a document you obtained from public files can’t be directly linked to, download it and link it that way, from your own server (and/or from a re-upload to Scribd, etc.) As the long-ago commercial slogan goes … “Try it, you’ll like it.”

      • jcstearns says:

        Thanks Tracy – your comment makes me realize that I wished I had included more examples from local newsrooms like yours. There is a way in which, because local newsrooms are so close to the ground with their community, transparency is often the mode from the start. However, I have seen other local newsrooms who still feel like it is easier and preferable to hide from their community. I love how you interweave transparency and engagement here.

    2. At FERN, we try to communicate the impact of our stories on our site. We commission and produce the work, but publish it with other outlets (print, broadcast, and online). So we don’t expect people to experience our stories on our site initially, but we do want to use the site to communicate where the story came from and/or what effect it had. We do this through impact metrics on the article page itself, an impact narrative that each story links to, and blog posts with Q&As, story summaries, or follow-on reporting. We also will give the editorial perspective in our newsletters that we send out each time we release a story.

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