Panel: Be more transparent to gain readers’ trust

Objectivity is dead, some say – and have been saying for many years.

“Objectivity in its most pure form never existed,” said Charlie Beckett, founding director of Polis, at the start of a panel called “The death of journalistic objectivity” at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia.

And that’s OK, the panelists agreed.

Dan Gillmor talking about the importance of transparency in modern journalism.
Dan Gillmor talking about the importance of transparency in modern journalism.

“We can do better than this unicorn-like thing we call objectivity,” said Dan Gillmor, professor at Arizona State University’s Walter J. Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Instead, Gillmor said, journalists should focus on several principles: thoroughness, accuracy, fairness and transparency.

“Transparency is the new objectivity,” Gillmor said, quoting his friend David Weinberger.

“If we understand well what the biases are, if we get thorough reporting in the process, then I’m quite comfortable I can sort out different competing reports that would effectively add up to the nuance that I need to make my own decision on it.”

Mathew Ingram, a writer at Fortune magazine who focuses on media and technology, said transparency is more important now than ever.

News organisations “used to control the channel” of distribution, Ingram said. Now, those channels are owned by other corporations, such as Facebook and Twitter, and people get information from a variety of sources.

“We don’t control the channel. We don’t control the platform. We don’t control the monetisation method. What do we control? We control the relationship we have with our readers and whether they trust us or not,” he said. “The more transparent and obvious you can be, the more your readers will trust you.”

Anna Masera, public editor of La Stampa, said her news organisation has focused on improving transparency as part of an effort to build its trust-worthiness.

La Stampa is working with Google and other organisations to make its reporting more transparent on its website. La Stampa would do that by making each reporter’s byline a link to all of the reporter’s other stories, providing information about how long a reporter has been in a place, disclosing whether a reporter received free admission to an event the reporter covered, providing information about who sponsored a story or series of stories, and telling who edited a story and when.

“This new taxonomy is what really makes a story richer and trust-worthy,” Masera said, noting that it still is in development.

Ingram said he is surprised more news organisations don’t already make each reporter’s byline a link to the reporter’s work. “It just seems kind of obvious,” he said.

But he questioned the usefulness of the other links La Stampa plans to add.

“Research shows the vast majority of people don’t click,” he said. “They don’t click on the link in your Tweet. They don’t click on your byline. They certainly don’t click on ads. We know that.”

Ingram said journalists need to do more work to be transparent.

Gillmor said he believes the links have value, even if readers don’t click on them.

“They’re evidence that you’ve done some homework,” he said.

Gillmor compared links in a news story to footnotes at the end of a book or research paper. He said they allow the reader to verify the information the reporter used and gain more context.

“The presence of the links strikes me as something that bolsters trust in what you do, assuming you’re doing your job right,” Gillmor said.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a columnist for The Independent, disagreed with the others.

“I don’t think transparency is any more a fantastic solution than objectivity was. Knowing the relationship doesn’t increase trust; it increases cynicism,” she said.

Ingram replied: “Maybe that’s better, though.”