From the Joseph Howe Symposium: The importance of trust and transparency in online journalism

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By Martha Troian

In the world of online journalism there are many new opportunities for transparency and building audience trust, but sometimes taking the steps to achieve these things can prove to be difficult.

Noted experts in their field, Mathew Ingram and Craig Silverman recently spoke about the issues of trust and transparency in a new media world to a crowd of students and media-interested Haligonians at the University of King's College in Halifax, NS at the 9th annual Joseph Howe Symposium.

Ingram is a former Globe & Mail columnist and its first online communities editor and blogger. He’s now senior writer at GigaOM. Craig Silverman is founder of Regret the Error, which can be found on Poynter, and Spundge, a recently-launched news curation tool.

According to Ingram, one of the things journalists can do to build transparency is the simple act of giving credit where credit is due. In the online world, it’s called hyperlinking, and it is one of the most important things about digital media, Ingram says.

“If you are collaborating, and using other people and other sources to help you do your job online you should provide links to that,” he said. In the ‘Twittersphere’ that sort of attribution could mean mentioning or retweeting someone.

On hyperlinking, Silverman agreed. “It's simple to do; it’s now fairly widely understood and it gives the context of the information that you're offering.” 

And attribution is one of Silverman's golden rules for transparency.

Silverman says the "messy world" of social media gives journalists an unlimited pool of sources and that makes attribution crucial to online transparency.

But it goes beyond that.

Transparency means journalists admitting they're human, capable of mistakes. And perhaps most importantly, owning up to those mistakes when they happen.

Ingram agreed. “I think we should admit that we are not super-humans and that we slip up,” he said. “Why is it so hard for journalists to admit that they are wrong?

Ingram says some journalists may argue that if you admit that you're wrong, people won't trust you – but he firmly believes the exact opposite.

“I think people will trust us more if we admit that we're flawed.”

Silverman has a blog that focuses on the errors journalists and media makes. Hosted by Poynter, ‘Regret the Error’ reports media corrections, apologies and gives tools journalists can use to avoid them.

Silverman says these failures actually enable us to not only build trust but develop deeper human connections with our audiences.

But he says that also means displaying an element of vulnerability and embracing the discomfort that comes with it.

“True transparency is uncomfortable,” says Silverman. “You have to get comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable.”

The symposium also hosted a panel discussion that discussed the issue of social media and transparency.

Three journalists — Jacques Poitras (CBC New Brunswick), Trevor J. Adams (Halifax Magazine) and Terra Tailleur (CBCNews.ca and King’s MJ student) — shared their thoughts on Twitter and journalism.

Poitras says he regularly uses his Twitter feed to share elements related to his story; government documents, previous news pieces but even links to other journalism sites such as J-Source, or CBC ombudsman reports.

He says that shows accountability and transparency in his work.

Tailleur stressed the need to be accurate and cautioned other journalists to take their role as journalists serious, even when it comes to tweets.

“If we're tweeting without thinking then we're not doing our jobs,” says Tailleur. “People will judge you based on your output.”

Although he admits to being more opinionated on Twitter, Adams says he is still cautious about his tweets, particularly when it comes to retweeting. He said he is reluctant to retweet unless he is comfortable with the source.

As Twitter continues to evolve, there’s been no shortage of discussion on what it means for the future of journalism. For a few examples, Ingram has, in the past, referred to Twitter as a “self-cleaning oven” where false reports are quickly corrected. As for Twitter being a medium upon which journalists can make mistakes in public and in real-time, a Montreal journalist’s suspension over a number of controversial tweets she sent (and subsequently deleted) during the Montreal student protests led to a discussion about what role editorial oversight had in reporters’ tweets, which Silverman was a part of.

Kelly Toughill, director of King's School of Journalism, says that as the audience changes, the field and craft of journalism is changing right along with it.

“J-schools have a responsibility to foster and guide our thinking about the information needs of society and how we will meet them in the digital age,” says Toughill.

That is one reason why the Joseph Howe Symposium exists.

As Ingram summarized, given the constant stream of information, it is up to the journalist to help people find the information that they need. 

Tim Currie, assistant professor in online journalism at King's, organized this year's symposium and the themes are ones he knows well.  Currie's own research focuses on social media, new media tools and journalism.

The Joseph Howe Symposium is an annual event initiated by the University of King's College School of Journalism in 2002.  The purpose of the symposium is to honour Joseph Howe, a Nova Scotian journalist, educator, and public servant and to promote writing and democracy. 

 

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