Transparency in journalism is about answering audience questions — both asked and unasked

Calls for transparency in journalism aren’t new. But they’re getting more frequent and insistent, as our previous post explored.

It can be tough, though, for journalists to picture what transparency should look like day to day. Beyond your About page (which is important) and your ethics policies (which work best when made public), how can you make pulling back the curtain part of your day-to-day work?

We’re a pragmatic bunch, and it’s reasonable that some of us are just wondering what transparency means for today’s story. This post will explore some best practices and recommendations.

Start with anticipated questions

Fundamentally, transparency elements are designed to tell your audience what you want them to know about you — your processes, your people, your motivation, your ethics and your values.

Sometimes with those elements, we’re answering questions we’ve seen our users wonder about publicly (in a comment, in an email, etc.): How do I know you were fair in this story? Why did you use this survey data rather than this other one?

Sometimes, though, we’re adding information that users might not even know they need but will actually appreciate. We might want to tell them, for example, that a group of editors debated which word or photo to use for 15 minutes. Or that we left out a source because we were worried about repercussions if they went public with their story. (Your users aren’t assuming that level of thoughtfulness or concern.)

A good way, therefore, to kickstart your transparency effort is to make a list of what your audience members have asked you to explain and what you wish they understood. Anticipate what about a story your users might misassume. What might you take for granted that they might not understand at all? (Remember, they often don’t give you the benefit of the doubt. Be explicit.)

You don’t have to do this for every story. But for coverage that really matters, pick one of these questions, and figure out how to answer it.

Why we’re doing this story. This could cover …

How we’re doing this story. This could cover …

What else you should know. This could cover …

Great. Now where does this information go?

Journalists are creatures of habit. We like our routines, our lingo and our familiar processes.

When it comes to adding information about the stories themselves into the work, we often get hung up on format. Where should this extra sentence go? Is it written in first person? What field in the CMS does it go in? And what is it even called, anyway?

We wrote in a previous post about why it’s most effective to inject transparency elements into a story itself, rather than relegating it to a separate column or page. The idea is to take advantage of attention where we have it rather than hoping users will care enough to click through. When The Washington Post explained how its reporters broke the story of allegations against Roy Moore, for example, it’s fair to assume that most readers will not click through to a page that includes a text explanation and video. No matter how effective the explanation is, it doesn’t do any good if people don’t find it.

Let’s look at some options for injecting transparency into the actual stories.

IN A BOX: A simple and popular option is to put a pull-out box next to or below a text story (online or in print). Here is an example used in research with the Center for Media Engagement and Trusting News. Two newsrooms add behind-the-scenes information alongside a story, and the research found that it clearly increased trust. (This can also be done in a video to run alongside a story or on social media.)

IN A NOTE ABOVE A STORY: Explain a key fact about your reporting or the motivation behind your coverage in an italicized note at the top or bottom of a story. As part of their work with the Solutions Journalism Network, Alaska Public Media is explicitly telling their audience when a story focuses on solutions. In this example, a note at the top of a story explains what that means and links back to more stories about solutions, along with a feedback form.

See this strategy in action at Alaska Public Media.

WITHIN AN ON-AIR STORY: The style of TV and radio stories, in which a journalist is speaking directly to an audience, can be a natural fit for adding process language. Throughout this investigative story, WUSA explained to its users how they produced a story. The reporter related his connection to the city of Washington, D.C., explained what questions he was trying to answer and looked for opportunities to walk viewers through the reporting process.

Listen to a WUSA reporter tell the story of his process here.

WITHIN A TEXT STORY: It’s not as awkward as you might think to add this information directly into a story. Here as an example from Annenberg Media, in which the staff added a sentence about why a source is unnamed and linked back to the full policy. That first step is important because it provides evidence of thoughtful, consistent decision making even if users do not click through to the whole policy.

Annenberg Media linked to its ethics policy but also briefly described how it applied to this story.

WITHIN A SOCIAL POST: When sharing a story about someone who died by suicide on Facebook, the Coloradoan used the post as a way to explain their approach to covering suicides. It demonstrated a commitment to making consistent, respectful decisions. The team used national guidelines from the CDC to help explain their position.

The Coloradoan added information about its ethics into this Facebook post.

IN NEWSLETTER TEXT: When you invite people to click through to a story, try taking an extra sentence to tell people why you invested in the coverage. It’s a way of explaining your values and inviting readers to share those values. The last paragraph of this newsletter from The Hechinger Report invites readers to care about solutions to problems.

In this newsletter example, the staff ran an A/B test. Half the newsletter list that got this version and half got a traditional version. The half that included the values language had a 15 percent higher click through rate than the regular one.

Another way to know whether your users find this information useful is to take the bold step of … asking them! The Gazette designed a button for their web stories that asked users if the information about how they reported a story was “helpful” or “not helpful.” Users weighed in on that questions by simply clicking on the words. This was added to pull-out boxes and at the end of written stories.

See these buttons from The Gazette in action on this page.

Ready to get started? Pick something you wish your audience understood about your values, your ethics, your process and your staff. Then figure out the best way to inject that information into or alongside your story.

Joy Mayer is the founder and director of Trusting News. For help earning trust, subscribe to the Trust Tips newsletter, and request a free trust coaching session. Joy is also the community manager for Gather, a platform to support engaged journalism.