Friday, 2 March 2012

Transparency is the new eyewash

This was originally posted to the BBC College of Journalism website in December 2010

Looks like it was my old boss Richard Sambrook who lobbed the old 'transparency is the new objectivity' dud ball back into play.
Not approvingly, you understand; quite the opposite. He's picking a fight with former US newspaper columnist and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Alan Mutter, who wrote at the start of December that:
"It's time to retire the difficult-to-achieve and impossible-to-defend conceit that journalists are now, or ever were, objective.
Let's replace this threadbare notion with a realistic and credible standard of transparency that requires journalists to forthrightly declare their personal predilections, financial entanglements and political allegiances so the public can evaluate the quality of the information it is getting."
Sambrook counters - as he also does in his excellent new paper for the Reuters Institute- that what's required of journalism today is that it become truly, genuinely, honestly, purposefully evidence-led:
"When critics call for greater openness of opinion ('let us know your prejudices and judge for ourselves') they invite a further avalanche of views inadequately supported by the shrinking resources allocated to discovery and verification."
He adds:
"There is no market failure in opinion - we are awash with it. There is market failure in high-quality, verified, evidence-led reporting on which debate can reliably be based. We should focus on the virtues of proof. Which in turn is all about bearing witness."
For the historians out there, it's David Weinberger who's generally credited with coining the 'transparency is the new objectivity' line - though doubtless an earlier reference will turn up, if it hasn't already.
Back in 2009, he wrote:
"What we used to believe because we thought the author was objective we now believe because we can see through the author's writings to the sources and values that brought her to that position. 
Transparency gives the reader information by which she can undo some of the unintended effects of the ever-present biases. Transparency brings us to reliability the way objectivity used to."
It's a seductive idea. Until you think about it. And when you do, it's difficult to be as polite as Richard Sambrook.
That's not to say journalists shouldn't be prepared to account for how they make their decisions: which 'facts' they use, which they leave out; how they frame their story; who to approach and why; whose testimony they accept and whose they reject. Nor that they should be secretive and evasive about themselves or their sources, unless they have to be.
And it's an article of faith - well, my personal faith anyhow - that a journalist should always go back to primary sources and share them as fully as possible with his/her audience.
The real-world problem with 'transparency is the new objectivity' is that neither is possible - so replacing one impossibility with another is ... well, nuts. That's one of the many reasons why here in the UK - and especially at the BBC - we aspire to 'impartiality' which (sorry Jeff Jarvis et al) really isn't the same thing.
Think about it: let's say I'm a reporter at the recent London student fees demo. I see and speak to some peaceful students; some who are less so. I see and chat with some relaxed police; I see the mounted police ride into action, paint thrown etc.
What do you need to know about me? What level of transparency do you need to judge my account?
Where I stood, where I walked and why? Who I didn't speak to and why not? What I didn't see and why not?
Whether I was a student myself? Whether I have kids currently paying fees or about to? Who I voted for at the last election and whether I'm getting the policies I thought I would? Whether I'd have to pay higher taxes if the fee hike was abandoned? Whether I'd mind? Why I just used the word 'hike'?
Whether I've ever had a brush with police? Whether I'd been mugged last week by someone looking just a bit like that chap over there? Am I cold and want to file my copy quickly?
In just the same way as there's no real stopping place for an objective account - or even an impartial one - there's no real stopping place for a journalist's transparency. No end to what could be relevant. 
And such is the nature of these things that even when you - the journalist - might think you've exhausted every possibility, you remain open to the charge that you 'hid' something you thought couldn't possibly be relevant but which someone else thinks is.
There's little or no hope for journalism to make sense of the world, or for journalists to act as trusted guides through the information fog, unless we persuade our audiences that we can be exactly that - trusted. Not because of what we've declared but because of what we do.
Open, yes. Accountable, yes. But the idea that transparency is any more possible than objectivity, or that it's some alternative to an impartial mindset, is eyewash. Worse, it risks equating the value of evidence-based journalism and of bearing witness with that of inchoate scrawlings on a Facebook wall.

1 comment:

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