Transparency is a double-edged sword: Being ethical takes more than self-exposure
When two reporters got themselves fired for joining Occupy protests, some critics said their NPR bosses should get with the program: impartiality in journalism was dead, replaced by full transparency about biases and involvements. Ira Basen, returning to a theme he explored earlier this year, thinks it’s more complicated than that.
When New York-based journalist Caitlin Curran was fired from her job as a part time web producer for WNYC Radio and Public Radio International last month, her boss told her she had violated “every ethic of journalism,” and hoped that it would be “a teaching moment” in her journalism career.
Curran’s crime had been to visit the Occupy Wall Street site and be photographed holding up what was perhaps the most long-winded protest sign in history. It read… "It's wrong to create a mortgage-backed security filled with loans you know are going to fail so that you can sell it to a client who isn't aware that you sabotaged it by intentionally picking the misleadingly rated loans most likely to be defaulted upon.”
Curran’s message was actually a quote from an article written by Conor Friedersdorf, a staff writer for The Atlantic, and referred specifically to a scheme engineered by investment banker Goldman Sachs that misleadingly marketed subprime mortgages to uninformed investors just as the U.S. housing market was starting to collapse in 2007.
As Fiedersdorf has pointed out, the statement on Curran’s sign wasn’t a matter of opinion. The SEC had investigated the scheme and concluded that Goldman Sachs had indeed misled investors and fined the bank $550 million.
But of course, it wasn’t the content of the sign that got Curran in trouble, it was the fact that she had attended the protest in the first place. According to WNYC spokesperson Jennifer Houlihan, the station’s editorial guidelines “require that editorial employees be free of any conflict that might compromise the work of the show overall,” and “when Ms. Curran made the decision to participate in the protest and make herself part of the story, she violated our editorial standards.”
Curran was the second public radio journalist to have been axed for their involvement in the Occupy movement. Lisa Simone, the host of “Soundprint,” an independently produced show that airs on 35 NPR stations, was fired after she helped organize a protest march in Washington D.C. She was also told she had violated NPR’s code of ethics by getting involved in a political protest movement.
Last year, NPR had also warned employees to steer clear of the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, organized by late-night comics Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart in Washington. In a memo to listeners, NPR acknowledged that the political nature of those rallies was “ambiguous,” but since many people would perceive them as political, they were therefore “off-limits except for those covering the events.”
The View from Canada
(Disclosure: I was a producer at CBC Radio for more than twenty years, and still contribute to the Corporation in various capacities)
Do the same sanctions apply to employees of Canada’s public broadcaster?
Yes. The CBC’s journalistic standards and practices book is quite clear on the subject of journalists and their opinions.
CBC journalists do not express their own personal opinion because it affects the perception of impartiality and could affect an open and honest exploration of an issue.
We maintain the same standards, no matter where we publish - on CBC platforms or in other media outside the CBC.
In 2006, Christine St-Pierre, a veteran Ottawa correspondent for Radio-Canada (and now a Quebec Cabinet minister), wrote an open letter to Canadian troops in Afghanistan. "We owe you all our respect and our unfailing support ... dear soldiers, your tears are not in vain, your tears are brave," St-Pierre wrote in the letter, published by Montreal's La Presse newspaper.
St-Pierre was suspended for breaching corporate guidelines prohibiting employees from expressing their opinions on political issues.
But the rules are not universally applied. If they were, it would be hard to see how Rex Murphy could continue to be the host of Cross Country Checkup, the long-running Sunday afternoon phone-in show.
Murphy is one of Canada’s best known opinionators, expressing himself weekly in a column in the National Post, and on the National on CBC-TV. His “protest signs,” which generally veer to the right of the political spectrum, are arguably more opinionated (and long-winded) than the one held up by Caitlin Curran.
He is a fierce critic of the long-gun registry, and is one of Canada’s leading skeptics when it comes to the science of climate change. In a recent column in the Post, he suggested that rather than occupy Wall Street, protesters should be occupying Hollywood because Hollywood stars are greedier than bankers.
Many of the issues Murphy opines on fall within the mandate of Cross Country Checkup, where for more than a decade, Murphy has served as the genial and neutral moderator. But the fact that Murphy refrains from using the show as his bully pulpit doesn’t alter the fact that callers and listeners know precisely where he stands on these issues, and it is the concern over violating the “perception of impartiality” that lies behind the CBC’s prohibition against its journalists expressing their personal opinions “on CBC platforms or in other media outside the CBC.”
The View from Nowhere
But maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe readers, viewers and listeners are actually better served by knowing that Caitlin Curran and Lisa Simone support the Occupy movement or that Rex Murphy thinks global warming is junk science. What if people are no longer buying the idea that there is a “perception of impartiality” in journalism today?
That’s a view that has become increasingly popular over the past few years. Critics, and many readers, are demanding that journalists link to their sources and be more transparent about how they go about writing their stories than was possible in print. Harvard’s David Weinberger provided a mantra for this movement when he declared in 2009 that “transparency is the new objectivity.”
Weinberger’s argument is that “objectivity is a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can’t do links,” but now journalists can and must let readers see “the sources, disagreements and the personal assumptions and values” that lay behind their reporting. “Transparency subsumes objectivity,” Weinberger concluded, “Objectivity without transparency increasingly will look like arrogance. And then foolishness.”
Jay Rosen of New York University is also critical of what he calls journalism’s “view from nowhere,” and suggests a more open and transparent “here’s where I’m coming from” approach would actually increase the public’s trust in journalism.
Now, a new website, NewsTransparency.com, is aiming to test Rosen and Weinberger’s hypothesis by forcing transparency on journalists, whether they like it or not. The site invites readers to submit personal and professional details about journalists. You can also rate and review those journalists’ work. It is part Wikipedia (with all its pluses and minuses), and part Amazon.
The stated purpose of NewsTransparency.com is “to improve the accuracy, quality, and transparency of journalism by making it easier to find out about the individual human beings who produce the news — human beings with opinions, relationships, history, and agendas. That information should help readers, viewers, and listeners put what they are reading in better context, and it may even prompt some improvements by the journalists.”
It’s an approach that will horrify many mainstream journalists. Take, for example, Leonard Downie, the former editor of the Washington Post, and a big proponent of the “view from nowhere.” Not only did he never vote, fearing that might betray a personal bias, but he boasted that he was able to avoid forming opinions on any of the big political issues of the day that his newspaper covered.
Whether that kind of detachment in the name of “objectivity” is either desirable or possible is open for debate. But do readers actually expect complete neutrality in political coverage, or even want it?
According to a Gallup poll released in September, 60 per cent of Americans surveyed said they believed the media was biased, and 55 per cent had little or no confidence that the mass media could report the news fully, accurately and fairly.
Perhaps that’s why more and more people are gravitating to outlets like Fox News, the Drudge Report and the Huffington Post, where biases are more often trumpeted than hidden. If the view from nowhere was supposed to increase the credibility of the press, it doesn’t appear to be working. Maybe it’s time to try something else?
The View from Somewhere?
So what would fully transparent journalism of the sort advocated by NewsTransparency.com and others look like? What questions might a reader want to ask about a reporter sent to cover the Occupy protests in order to determine where that reporter is “coming from”?
To begin with, are they a member of a union or any other social activist group? Have they, or any member of their family, ever belonged to a union, crossed or respected a picket line, engaged in civil disobedience or gotten arrested? What about their voting record and the causes they have donated money to?
It might be important to know their annual income, their total family income and net worth to determine if they might be biased in favour of the big guys over the little guys. What about their investment portfolio? What companies do they own shares in? And of course, you would want to examine their entire body of work to see if there is a pattern of bias that emerges.
Do they have any personal connections with any of protesters? Who do they play hockey with? Who do their kids go to school with? Have they ever socialized with anyone in the police or local government? Have they ever used them as a source in any other story? Who did they talk to about this story and what did they say?
The list of questions is almost endless, and there’s room to answer all of them online. And all of them are relevant if you truly believe that a journalist’s account of a story can’t be fully trusted unless you know where they’re “coming from.”
The View from Wall Street
Take the case of Erin Burnett, host of the new CNN show Erin Burnett OutFront. On her first show last month, Burnett travelled down to the Occupy Wall Street site, where she interviewed protesters in a manner that that one critic described as “myopic and condescending,” and she erroneously reported that U.S. taxpayers actually made money from the billions of dollars that spent bailing out the big Wall St. banks.
Would it have been useful for viewers of OutFront to know that Erin Burnett used to be an analyst at Goldman Sachs and a VP at Citigroup/Citimedia? Or that she is currently engaged to an executive at Citigroup? Or that her father is a prominent corporate attorney, and that among the people who attended the party celebrating her new show was the CEO of JP Morgan Chase?
Could that information have helped explain her negative attitude towards the Wall St. occupiers? Are Erin Burnett’s potential conflicts of interest any less obvious than Caitlin Curran’s and Lisa Simone’s?
Supporters of the “view from nowhere” assume that journalists bring a set of biases and pre-conceptions bring to a story (unless, of course, they are Leonard Downie), but their methodology, when rigorously applied, can result in something close to “objectivity.” Even a Wall Street banker can report “objectively” on Occupy Wall Street if they follow generally accepted rules of reporting.
But in today’s media environment, the line between reporting and opinion has gotten very blurry, and journalists are increasingly packaged and sold as personalities and stars. The growing chorus for more transparency is partly a response to the fact that journalists are increasingly inserting themselves and their opinions into their stories.
But transparency is not the new objectivity. Transparency is a double-edged sword. It can increase and diminish credibility at the same time. Knowing about a potential conflict of interest is better than not knowing. But no disclosure statement can ever be complete enough to satisfy the truly skeptical. Sites like NewsTransparency.com assume that journalists are incapable of overcoming potential conflicts and reporting the facts fairly and honestly. That represents the end of journalism as we know it.
For many mainstream media outlets, trumpeting the “view from nowhere” is becoming increasingly problematic. Their policies around conflict of interests are becoming harder to defend and enforce. Critics are right to challenge their inconsistencies and demand greater accountability.
One of those critics, Glenn Greenwald of Salon, recently wrote that “contrary to popular wisdom, there aren’t two types of journalists: those who express opinions and those who are objective. The two types are those who honestly acknowledge their opinions and those who deceitfully pretend such opinions do not influence their journalism.”
For journalists who still believe in ideals like journalistic objectivity and neutrality, finding a middle ground between “nowhere” and “somewhere” is beginning to emerge as one of their most important challenges.
Ira Basen began his career at CBC Radio in 1984. He was senior producer at Sunday Morning and Quirks and Quarks. He has been involved in the creation of three network programs; The Inside Track (1985), This Morning (1997), and Workology (2001), as well as several special series, including Spin Cycles, an award winning six part look at PR and the media, News 2.0, a two part exploration of news in the age of social media, and Engineering Search: the story of the algorithm that changed the world. Ira has written for The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, Maisonneuve, and the Canadian Journal of Communication. He writes a column on media for cbc.ca, and is a contributing editor at J.Source.ca. Ira is currently teaching at Ryerson University and the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University. He is the co-author of the Canadian edition of The Book of Lists (Knopf Canada, 2005).