The Rise of Radical Transparency

Renowned media ethicist Stephen Ward on the origins of today’s transparency push and why new public institutions will be crucial to rebuild trust in media.

In this first in a series of interviews with leading media theorists, Pressland editorial director Alexander Zaitchik talks with Stephen Ward, Distinguished Lecturer of Ethics at the University of British Columbia.

Before dedicating his career to media ethics, Ward worked as a reporter, war correspondent and newsroom manager. He currently serves as a columnist for Media Shift, the website of the Center for Journalism Ethics, and he is the author of numerous books, including The Invention of Journalism Ethics: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond. He co-authored the Canadian Association of Journalists’ codes of ethics.

How recent is the acceptance and rise of transparency as a major pillar of media ethics?

“Transparency” as we know it today is an extension and transformation of an old notion. In the 18th and 19th centuries, transparency only related to the government being reported on. As journalists and newspapers grew in power, the focus wasn’t on journalism itself being open and transparent. It was about demanding, for example, that reporters could get inside the English Parliament and report.

Only with [last century’s] rise of the mass media and a professional journalist class with professional ethics do we start to see today’s understanding of “transparency.” It comes from the first attempts to assuage public mistrust of media — which is a very old thing — by saying, “No, no, you can trust us, even though we are getting very powerful, because we have a code of ethics and we promise to abide by them.”

It really started to change in the 1970s, first in medicine and the law, and later in journalism. There was a growing distrust in institutions and a whole movement to show that the professionals did abide by their codes. At the time, the mechanics of making journalism was not at all open. I grew up in a tradition of journalism where newsrooms were considered to be back boxes. Our job was just to get the information, then get it down the line to the passive awaiting public. We resented people calling us and asking where we got that story.

Even after the 1970s, it seems like there was a long period before “transparency” got much traction or gained the kind of buzz it has today.

Journalists were slow to pick up on transparency. It’s only in 1994 that the Society of Professional Journalists kicked “Objectivity” out the door as a major principle in its code, and substituted “Transparency” — telling people what you did and how you did it.

The internet gave the next great impetus. The whole culture of the internet was sharing, knowing where this comes from, and it sent journalists scrambling to meet this need. By 2005, when the internet really started to take over our communication habits, people started to insist, “Look, you’ve got the technological means now to be transparent, so be so.”

You’ve written critically about some of the recent hype around transparency, in which it is imbued with a kind of magical quality. What is its proper place in the mix of media ethics?

I think transparency is very important. But there are two mistakes you can make: you can overestimate it, and you can underestimate it.

Those who overestimate it say, “It’s the only thing you need in journalism. Just be transparent, and everything will be okay.” My reply is, “Well, you can have neo-Nazis being perfectly transparent, and I don’t want them writing journalism.”

Ethical journalism is a composite of different norms, it’s not just one thing.

Now, you can also underestimate transparency, and say, “Well, all we need to do is engage the audience every now and then and tell them how we are doing our journalism, rather than having a full-hearted, full-time commitment to transparency every day.”

That is not enough.

There are a lot of aspects of media transparency, ways to define it and measure it. How do you define it?

Transparency can mean so many things. It covers everything from a really easy-to-use and transparent corrections policy system, to methods that regularly explain how journalists report their stories. It can mean having ombudsmen who explain controversial editorial decisions. It’s about being totally aware of norms and using those norms to inform the public.

Speaking as an ordinary citizen, not as a journalist, I want to know where that story came from, how it was produced, especially major stories. You’ve got to be very confident in your news process to do this. Only the best of journalists and the best of news organizations may take this up, but it is better to have this core, than to simply say, “We’ll, it’s totally impossible.”

It’s also about opening up journalism, whether it wants to or not. It’s about seeing the public as a participant in the media process. I think citizens should sit on ethical committees in newsrooms. I think that any major news room contemplating an update to its code of ethics, for example, should be public-directed and public-participatory. Which means that the public actually gets to sit inside those meetings and has a say in what the norms should be.

What we need are national coalitions of people really concerned about media and transparency, working together to make sure that the public has access to that information. There are lots of ways in which good news organizations could disclose their history and ownership, for starters.

Speaking of ownership, how are traditional transparency issues, such as conflicts of interest, changing with technology and new business models of journalism?

Look at the development of nonprofit news, where you have investigative websites that are beholden to one or two major funders. These media organizations need to develop ethical processes and guidelines for conflicts of interests. This has become incredibly important in the last ten years.

The first step is transparency. You can’t expect people to think you are weeding these things out without first listing funders and possible conflicts. And secondly, telling the people if there is any possibility of a conflict or media bias, what you are doing to handle it, and so on. This is the new era of transparency.

Technology is not the only answer, but boy, it could help a lot. People are impatient, so why not give them a button to push that tells them what they want and need to know about an organization’s owners and funders, right up top?

Do you think there is more of an acceptance of this kind of transparency happening as the first internet generation assumes power?

Yes. The younger journalists are into this mode. Older journalists have to stop thinking in terms of “Us, The Media,” and “Them, the Receivers of Our Information.” The public is not to be feared or dismissed. The public needs to understand the media process.

How do you bring the public into this process and build mechanisms that allow them to hold the media accountable?

You establish accountability measures. How many media ombudsman do we have? How about forums like media councils — a very old idea — where you can complain about the media? Washington State was the last state with a media council.

I’m not sure why, given social media’s ability to bring groups together, you wouldn’t put the issue out to the public and at least ask them what they think. Media councils should be more proactive. They don’t have to be called councils — call them coalitions. I want coalitions and councils and even outfits like you’re developing [Pressland] to actually allow people inside the tent of journalism, and to become more knowledgeable about it. It all falls under that rubric of transparency.

I support the movement to give citizens the tools they need to actively question what’s coming in front of them. I am a big proponent of media literacy in a very rigorous fashion being taught early in our school system, say grade six, whenever these kids are starting to use their smart phones for media.

And we need for journalists to be active, to go out into the schools, to go out into public meetings and explain how what they do is different from the fake journalists. That’s really important. I think this would come as foreign to many journalists of the old school, like myself, but I personally would love it.

How does the rise of the amateur journalist complicate the picture — or does it?

If you look at the media ecology we’re living in, we have so many different types of people bringing in new forms of media, new websites, new whatever, that we cannot realistically think we are going to persuade all of those people to be transparent in a full and ethical manner.

In fact, many of them don’t want to be. We have, of course, agents of disinformation and purposeful “fake news,” and I use that term very carefully. There are algorithms and computers that are being developed to edit deep fake videos, so we’re losing the ability to understand whether a video is real or accurate, or not. It is really scary.

That’s actually something Pressland is aiming to address, but that’s another story. Last question: Is the erosion of public trust in the media reversible?

Yes, it is. At least, it can be stabilized. Get the patient off life-support. In fact, I’ve seen some polls recently where it’s ticked up [and] I think it will tick up for a while.

We are finally tuning into the fact that we need some institutions to counter what’s happening in the American public sphere. But it’s not going to continue improving unless we as a society and as citizens together to support the sorts of transparency measures that we are talking about.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Production Details
v. 1.0.0
Last edited: December 5, 2018
Author: Stephen Ward
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Illustration: Photo courtesy of Stephen Ward
Additional Editors: n/a