Transparency is good, but not a replacement for the "old objectivity"

I was a newspaper reporter before I went into Web technology as a profession, and well before becoming any kind of blogger, so when I comment on journalism I have both perspectives ensconced in my brain. I was also a reporter before the journalism field took a lot of flack for lack of objectivity, so my expectations may surprise some of you jaded by disappointment in journalism.

The title of this blog post riffs from a well-written piece by David Weinberger Transparency is the New Objectivity.  In his piece, he notes that the hyperlinked nature of online articles and blogs, which enable presentation of reference documents (ie, the materials used by a reporter to create a news story) create a more authoritative sourcing and thus more respect for that author's work. Also, he believes respect is fostered by an author's transparency with regard to personal and political views.

In other words, if I know your political bent,and I see photos/scans of all the documents you used for Watergate, I'd believe you more 'cause I know where you are coming from. I could reconstruct for myself how you came to the conclusions of your news story, and agree with you based on that knowledge. 

While I am actually a fan of transparency, and it's nice especially for journalism students to be able to recreate the thought processes behind great investigative journalism, I'm not sure presentation of author views and reference material alone is enough to create the kind of journalism that was the goal of the "old objectivity."  We can't afford to mistake the gloss of transparency for the heavy lifting objectivity in journalism was supposed to do.

Transparency of reference materials

Transparency will not always result in the most accurate reporting coming out. As I tweeted to Dare Obasanjo, what happens if your sources are people in Iran who are afraid for their lives, to go on the record. Do you not publish a blog post from Iran because you can't be 100% transparent about the sources?

Another problem is that the kind of investigative journalism that creates social change (see Seattle Times Health special project on MRSA) may require creating a new record of assembled data (a db for example). Do you as a reader now distrust the data because it was assembled by The Seattle Times and not an easily referenced document? How will you vet their db analysts? Will you look at the code to ensure they coded it right and their select statements are properly formed?

Even if the reference materials are simple flat files and/or readable in a browser, will you as reader really have 5 hours reconstructing each detail of  the Seattle Times data processes, or do you just want to look up the hospital near you to see if the doctors wash their hands? Why pay for the paper  for access to this information if you have to re-create the reporting entirely yourself?

Placing a higher value on linkable reference materials also brings out  the question of coverage skewing toward what is easiest to link to.  Will reporting just become groups of links to documents that are already public? Link to videos and photos that were already reported (but maybe presented the wrong experts or sources in the captions?)

And while we are at this presentation of a collection of links, well, doesn't this notion sound like a search engine results page to anyone? I have yet to see anyone claim that a search engine can replace heavy-hitting, muckraker journalism. Why? Well, often a reporter has studied an area for far longer than the casual Web surfer, so the content value added in synthesizing the information will be higher (it's why you ask only certain people to help you fix your computer, and others you don't bother - the experienced people know what to look for and how to troubleshoot). 

But also, search engine results are presented in response to queries, and are dependent on the user knowing what terms to put into the box (this is why the bing user experience is so interesting, it tries to visually nudge you to get more of an idea what you really want back). If  the searcher doesn't know what  cognitive linkages to make between documents beforehand, it's not likely the materials would come back together.

To get 3 document links back that resemble the 3 reference materials for a news story, you'd have to know what was in the docs, and their relationships to one another with regard to the investigative conclusion. In other words, you'd have to know the horrifying statistics of MRSA before you put down the search terms. This is why the term "human aggregator" doesn't begin to talk about what a good reporter does with information - they really have to analyze it enough to teach other people how to make these connections.

Reliance on only linkable/readily transparent items creates other dynamics. Doesn't even have to be laziness but shortage of time...What if you are blogging nights and weekends and have a day job, without the time to look at older documents on microfiche at the courthouse or pull public paper records to affirm for yourself things got done? The temptation will be high to link to what's easy and write about what's easy and the bar will lower to ease of linkage.  Really, only one rich news org has the resources to do any real reporting - then the rest of us just link to that, right?

People hotly debated whether Techcrunch should have released the Twitter business documents they blogged about, but few really talked about whether actual journalism was being committed around the documents. (Michael Arrington would argue yes of course, but to Silicon Valley outsiders the docs themselves became news. In a j-school context, you could argue that the docs were really just one "fact check" against an emerging Twitter story that Techcrunch has not yet written and now may not ever write.)

Transparency of author viewpoint

Fear of a reporter  skewing news coverage based on their background, political views or opinion is at the heart of the objectivity debate. However, this fear of non-objectivity applies to other professions as well and people tend to forget that.

Every day, you hope that your doctor doesn't mind treating people of different political views than her, and will prescribe you the right medicines for your cold regardless of your choice of vacation home. You hope that your bus driver drives the same (safe) way regardless of who is on his bus. You hope the guy giving you the fries and hamburger didn't spit into your food because he hated the rock band on your t-shirt. Heck, people work with people  all the time that they can't stand, and for professionalism's sake, they put personal feelings aside.

It's so interesting that people more readily trust there isn't spit in their Coke, but are sure that a reporter is hiding something from them.

What were my own standards of objectivity?

Here's what I understood to be my standard of objectivity, when I was in the journalism profession. I was told by one news editor early in my career that essentially if everyone disagreed with the "bias" of my story - all the special interest groups opposing each other hated it equally- there was a likelihood I had hit the sweet spot of objectivity. I was supposed to get along with my sources, but they were not supposed to be my best friends, and they should not be able to guess which way I would vote in an election. They should not see me as biased against their religion or point of view. To do my job well, both sides had to trust I'd represent their point of view fairly (or at least piss off the other side equally).

So to do a good job, I  had to be free to aggravate everyone, because the truth is often complex, hard to get at, and debateable, and if I was always worrying about pleasing people in power or high in celebrity quotient, I wouldn't be representing the truth correctly. The newspaper would stand behind me, protect my notebook (paper not digital), and bail me out of jail for the stories I wrote when powerful public figures or companies went after me. In return, I had to be meticulous in my accuracy, get as much on the record as possible, and as scrupulous about representing as many points of view as would fit in a 6-20 column inch space. It helped that both states I worked in had decent public records laws and my note-taking verbal memory was really good. And I had good editors, who took out things from my stories they felt weren't decently backed up or were redundant and therefore presenting too much of one source's point of view.

Transparency meant something other than documentation or stating my political views of the moment- it went straight to the heart of where I got my money from.  If I had ever worked for an organization, owned stock in that organization, had relatives in an organizaation, I either did not cover the story or (as sometimes you see in MSN Money) I would have had to disclose my interest "this columnist owns 5 shares of stock in Microsoft."   The appearance of being unable to cover a topic area fairly was good enough to keep me from it. Mostly, journalism kept me out of public activism because as a cub reporter I really didn't want to close down story areas I could write in. Other journalists who were more established (ie, could focus on one beat) could afford to have private causes not related to their beat.

BTW, I found I always had more notes and material than I could fit into a news story. It wasn't sinister, it's that people hate reading anything long.

Even as a freelance book reviewer, which is pure opinion, The Seattle Times constantly ensured I was reading books by people I didn't know, or have any ties to. Being "out of the scene" was helpful because it meant I didn't have a social or political agenda to like or dislike the books. 

This is the kind of self-policing relative to a standard of objectivity. A standard of transparency for online journalism might help someone get caught violating the standards of objectivity and fairness but I think the root issues would still remain: did you try to get an objective truth? is the article or post accessible to people of all persuasions and initial points of view? Do you have documents, facts, quotes, witnesses to back up the conclusions of your piece? Are you being a lazy journalist/blogger, or are you digging deeper even as you seem sure the conclusion can be reached for this piece? Have you annoyed everyone equally, even the people you are supposed to be in the pockets of?

So, while I think transparency is good, I don't think it replaces the old goals of good journalism and transcending the reporter's personal point of view to get the complete story out. Empathy is key to good journalism and blog reporting- the ability to put yourself in the flood victim or the astronaut's shoes as they tell their stories. A piece of reporting that goes beyond him/herself to reach other people is usually the most powerful kind of reporting and I'm not sure a page full of links can take the place of that human processing information for a public/purpose well beyond the personal.