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THE TAO OF JOURNALISM

How Can We Encourage Transparency, Accountability and Openness in the New Era of Inclusivity?

John Hamer

(NOTES on Morning Session, Aug. 8, 2007, 9:15-10:30 am)

CONVENOR: John Hamer, Washington News Council, jhamer@wanewscouncil.org

REPORTERS: Shawn McIntosh, Columbia University, stm16@columbia.edu and John Hamer

PARTICIPANTS:

  • Kevin Gamble, North Carolina State University, Kevin_gamble@ncsu.edu
  • Jeanne McCann, Education Week, jmmccann@epe.org
  • Amy Mitchell, Project for Excellence in Journalism, amitchell@journalism.org
  • Robert Basler, Reuters, Robert.Basler@reuters.com
  • Ingrid Dahl, Youth Media Reporter, idahl@aed.org
  • Keika Shimmyo, Academy for Educational Development, kshimmyo@aed.org
  • Elin Waring, ePluribus Media, elin.waring@gmail.com
  • Cody Howard, 6News, The World Co., choward@sunflowerbroadband.com
  • Tana Hartman, The Peoples Channel, tmhartman@nc.rr.com
  • Barbara Schulz, ePluribus Media, equineestates@gmail.com
  • Paul Thomas, ePluribus Media, dr.p.Thomas@gmail.com
  • Dori Maynard, Maynard Institute, djm@maynardije.org

John Hamer introduced the session and had everyone go around the circle to identify themselves.

John said he had struggled over the right verb for the title: Encourage? Nurture? Guarantee? He said that most people are now demanding -– or at least expecting -– transparency, accountability and openness in the media, whether in mainstream/legacy media or the new citizen journalism.

One question is: How do mainstream journalists react to this idea? Several commented that journalists are still divided, and there is disagreement over the desired level of openness.

Kevin Gamble asked: How far does openness go? He said he comes from a scientific background, where everything is open, including notes, records, evidence, etc. Will journalists be as open?

Some questioned whether that made sense, noting that it could lead to endless back-and-forth between journalists and critics. Where does the story stop?

Jeanne McCann said that edweek.org started a “Behind the Scenes” blog to explain to readers the background behind stories, but nobody read it. She also noted that reporters don’t want their emails to be open to the public. John noted that we want Karl Rove’s emails open, but not ours.

Amy Mitchell said the Project for Excellence in Journalism encourages journalists to put out as much information and share as much with readers as possible, including where their information came from and what they don’t know. She said this often helps bring feedback and reactions that improve and advance a story.

Shawn McIntosh questioned the definitions of the three different terms in the session title, and suggested we try to define them better for our discussion. He said that "accountability" referred to what happened after a story ran, "transparency" dealt with the process of how the story was made, and "openness" was a kind of “umbrella term” that applied to both.

John Hamer noted that there was some overlap, but "openness" also included the concept of reporters/editors being open to the whole idea of more "transparency" and "accountability."

Amy Mitchell said that "accountability" had to do with “taking responsibility for information.” If a journalist puts it out, they should stand by it. She noted a recent case where a journalist/blogger passed along information that was incorrect, then said they could not take responsibility because they were just passing it along, not vouching for its accuracy. All seemed to agree that was irresponsible.

Ingrid Dahl noted that the session title included the word “Inclusivity,” and said that should also apply to gender, race and youth. She said that younger people were not being included enough.

Elin Waring noted that “In some ways, there’s more accountability today, in other ways less.” She cited the problem of passing incorrect information along in a “chain” of emails, blogs, etc.

Bob Basler said that “the notion of correcting our mistakes is fairly new” in the mainstream media, which have been doing it for only about “30 years or so.” He does a blog for Reuters.com called “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” in which he responds to reader feedback and complaints, and runs corrections or clarifications. He said some have to do with “style points,” others with “loaded words” and some with the perceived “agendas” of reporters. He said the blog airs “all of our dirty laundry,” and his posts stay up for 90 days. It’s a “daily give-and-take with readers.” He said they started doing it internally about 10 years ago, put it on Reuters.com 2 years ago, and he started the daily blog 2 months ago. “We purposely haven’t started counting hits yet,” he said. He said the response among Reuters reporters was “pretty divided,” with some liking it and others opposing it. But he said it provides for “midcourse corrections” in stories online.

Elin Waring said that some news sites and blogs “mark” their mistakes when they correct them, and that was a good thing to do.

Kevin Gamble said he likes those that “strike out” the incorrect information with a line.

Cody Howard said that in a small town like Lawrence, Kansas, with 80,000 people, there may be less need for such mechanisms. He also said that 6News posts online all of the footage that they shoot, so people can see the entire interview, not just what is broadcast.

John Hamer asked if journalists should post more information about themselves online so readers know something about them and where they are coming from, including political leanings. He noted that many bloggers do this, and asked if mainstream journalists should do the same.

Amy Mitchell said “the more information you can share, the better.” But others questioned whether that made sense, especially for news reporters.

Cody Howard said it “should be inconsequential,” and that all of his reporters “should be neutral” in their reporting. “It doesn’t matter” what their personal views are, he said.

Shawn McIntosh said many people today want more “context,” and such information could help. “Why keep up this façade that a journalist is neutral and objective?”

Jeanne McCann said posting such information might draw more negative reaction, and that it really doesn’t matter what a reporter’s personal beliefs or inclinations are.

Elin Waring said that “As a consumer, we know there are some reporters who always take the same slant or use the same sources.” She argued for fuller disclosure by mainstream journalists, noting that readers quickly figure out where a reporter is coming from.

Tana Hartman noted that when she did PBS shows, she disclosed what she does in addition, such as working for a fair-elections group, in the interest of full disclosure and openness.

Ingrid Dahl said that the line between “public” and “private” journalism was “getting blurry,” and we need to know more and have more context. She said that young people today don’t know where to get news that they can rely on. She said they are fed lots of false information and they are tired of it. She said it was important to know whom to trust.

Barbara Schulz said that when she got in her truck and drove to New Orleans after Katrina because she wanted to help and has “always been an activist,” she was amazed to find that the mainstream media were not providing thorough and accurate coverage. She started blogging about what she saw and won national and world attention. She also said that people don’t talk among themselves enough anymore. “People want to interact,” she said. “Everyone has ideas.” She said there was a great need to “mentor” young people.

Amy Mitchell said that the vast array of new media puts more responsibility on consumers, who have to spend more time sorting out sources to learn what they want and need to know. She said it was more difficult, but also possible to be much better informed than ever before.”

Dori Maynard said it was NOT (Note: This is a correction. The word "not" was accidentally omitted from the first version of these notes. I take full responsibility and apologize for the error, in the interest of full accountability. -- JH) possible for everyone to “load up their truck” and drive somewhere to act as citizen journalists. She said that “underserved communities” need more and better reporting. She cited the “eroding readership and viewship” among people of color. She said many are reacting by starting their own ethnic publications, websites, blogs, etc. She said that her home city of Oakland is often regarded as a crime center, because that is a stereotyped perception in much of the mainstream media, but the reality is much different.

John Hamer said he had convened this session because he believed transparency, accountability and openness were all essential to the future of journalism, no matter what form it takes. He said he started the Washington News Council (www.wanewscouncil.org) nearly 10 years ago because he thought the news media needed an “outside ombudsman” to consider citizen complaints that they could not resolve. He said half of the WNC’s members are journalists or former journalists, and the other half are members of the public from all walks of life. That gives the Council great credibility. But he said that with all the new feedback mechanisms in the media today, plus the explosion of citizen journalism, the council is rethinking its mission and activities -- but it is still devoted to promoting transparency, accountability and openness.

The session ended at 10:30 am.