Star public editor: When transparency trumps independence

By Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star

By Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star

Journalist Shree Paradkar debated with herself for many months before approaching Star editors to discuss her reporting on the high-profile murder charges against her Indian cousin accused of killing her own daughter and cook.

Paradkar asked herself if she could report fairly on this family tragedy that Time magazine labeled as “India’s JonBenet Ramsey case?” She understood that pitching a story about the plight of her own relatives would be seen as a conflict of interest.

On the other hand, she knew this was a compelling, newsworthy story that was capturing headlines across India and throughout the world. She would have exclusive access to investigate the story of her cousin, Nupur Talwar, and her husband, Rajesh, both charged with the 2008 murder of their 13-year-old daughter, Aarushi, in the New Delhi suburb of Noida.

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After extensive discussion of these issues, Foreign Editor Lynn McAuley agreed to send Paradkar to India to report this story. The ground rules were clear: Paradkar and the Star must be totally transparent with readers about the journalist’s connection to the story. Paradkar would of course be held to the highest standards of fairness but readers would know her personal interest and could assess her reporting in that clear light.

For her part, Paradkar requested a photographer accompany her not only to shoot the photos and video but to enhance the Star’s transparency by witnessing all she learned from both her cousins and criminal justice officials. And she became clear within her own mind about her own purpose in reporting on Aarushi’s bloody killing.

“This was about justice for my niece.” Paradkar told me. “When that was the focus, all potential conflicts died. I knew that if, by some remote chance, I came across anything that suggested guilt, I’d report it. Even at the cost of family relationships.”

Last January, the Star devoted four pages to Paradkar’s riveting report of her relatives’ anguish and the many questions she raised about the competency of the justice system in her country of origin. She set the facts down as she saw them, making clear her personal involvement.

This week, news broke in India that Paradkar’s cousin and her husband were convicted of murdering their only child and their cook and were sentenced to life in prison. Online and in the newspaper, the Star’s main news report was a Reuters wire service piece. As well, we published a personal piece by Paradkar that provided her own and her family’s perspective on the conviction. The article made clear her view that the entire family “believes in the innocence” of the couple “because they had no motive to kill their child.”

While only one reader expressed concern to me in January about Paradkar reporting on her family, this week’s piece prompted a number of readers to question Paradkar’s “bias” and “conflict of interest.” In some cases they had not seen her earlier story.

By longstanding traditional media standards, there is a clear conflict here and certainly, bias. The Star’s policy guide states that “It is not proper for journalists to be both actors and critics.”

But, increasingly, media ethicists are questioning the value of what’s been called the “views from nowhere,” acknowledging that “objectivity” is impossible and, further, that it’s sometimes possible to report with a point of view – as long as honest, full disclosure is provided to readers so that they can judge for themselves the quality of the information.

This was a key concept discussed at a seminar on credibility and evolving journalism ethics I attended in New York earlier this month, led by Kelly McBride, media ethicist at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, and Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute.

In their recent book, The New Ethics of Journalism, the pair contend that in this digital era of audiences holding journalists to account through social media, “transparency begins to supersede independence.”

But transparency doesn’t rule out fairness.

“It is tempting to see transparency as a lower bar — we simply disclose our conflicts of interest and we are good to go. In fact, true transparency is more than disclosure. It also requires producing the news in ways that can be explained and even defended,” they state.

“In a world where so many people can create news and spread information, transparency becomes a mechanism that allows the public to sort the reliable from the suspect.”

Certainly there is ongoing debate in journalism about this evolution. And while I share the “old-school” view that impartial, independent journalism remains a vital value, I am increasingly coming to understand that in some stories, involvement and full transparency can bring readers closer to the story and the process of reporting.

To continue reading this column, please go where it was originally published. 

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