March 24, 2014 by Emma Goodman
Knight Foundation senior adviser Eric Newton will be speaking at the Polis Annual Journalism Conference on March 28, 2014 at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He answered the following questions posed by Polis team member Emma Goodman in advance of the conference, which will focus on journalism transparency and accountability.
Goodman: Do you agree with David Weinberger’s 2009 statement (since repeated frequently by journalists and media commentators) that ‘transparency is the new objectivity’?
Newton: I’m not entirely sure people agree on what he meant. Is transparency a substitute for objectivity? No. Is transparency as important as objectivity? Yes.
In the networked digital age, transparency is fundamental. Today, being fair means more than reporting a story’s many sides; it means being open about yourself as a journalist, a person who is searching for truth. We need to let people behind the curtain. Who are we? Why are we doing this story? What tools are we using? What’s our news ethic?
But objectivity also is fundamental. Is anyone else growing weary of how objectivity is discussed? There’s too much debate about whether a person can be neutral and not enough focus on whether a tool or a method can be. Whether someone is acting journalistically depends on what people do, not so much on who they are. Anyone can perform an act of journalism. The definition is situational, not occupational.
Let’s apply this to a basic-yet-often-ignored journalistic task: counting a crowd.
An event’s backers say 500,000 people were there at the peak. An aerial photograph, divided into grids and analyzed, estimates only about 80,000 were there. It no longer works to say, “We have no bias; we counted. Trust us.” In social media the partisans simply shout, “You lie!” Today, the journalistic action is to show one’s work. We should publish the photo online, explain the crowd-counting method and let people check what we did themselves. See, folks? The crowd is what it is, no matter what your personal beliefs. That’s being transparently objective.
Personal information can add authenticity. You could write a column that begins: “As an environmentalist, I believe publicists who hype the size of crowds at party rallies are hurting our cause…” Transparency can help others hold us accountable. Post the picture. Post the source documents. Explain what you are trying to do. Be humble. Use transparency to bring more to the table, not, like the bogus “he said, she said” form of objectivity, as an excuse to avoid facts. Great acts of journalism have been committed by advocacy journalists who dug for the facts and stuck to the facts.
But an open-minded journalist’s view, if truly held, is a legitimate view in its own right; neutrality is only a “view from nowhere” if it is an excuse for being obtuse. When we are lucky the journalist’s view is a view from a wonderful place, a place of curiosity; human and imperfect, yes, where we resist the temptation to abandon accuracy by going too fast or losing perspective; but at its best a panoptic vantage point where context for a moment may become clear; a place of inquiry, where the journalist honestly doesn’t know a thing but is driven to find a tool or technique that may reveal it, in the same way that a doctor uses a CAT scan to peer inside a patient or a referee an instant replay to know if a player was out of bounds.
Both transparency and objectivity serve the greater idea of fairness. While people are rarely totally objective or transparent, they can be fair by following rules and standards and avoiding the temptation to cheat. News organizations that post their ethical codes – or go further and embed source information, writer bios and ethical goals as metadata underlying their stories, or even further and write all their news algorithms, crowd-counting software and other newsbots in open source code – would be transparently objective in superb fashion.