Ward’s Words: Putting transparency in its place

By Stephen Ward

Transparency, according to optimistic accounts, is the answer to bad government and wrong doing by corporations and news media. Let the “sunshine” of transparency enter the public domain and watch these evil forces retreat.

Transparency—monitoring how agencies operate—goes back to the trumpeting of “publicity” as a check on secretive government in the 18th century.

By Stephen Ward

Transparency, according to optimistic accounts, is the answer to bad government and wrong doing by corporations and news media. Let the “sunshine” of transparency enter the public domain and watch these evil forces retreat.

Transparency—monitoring how agencies operate—goes back to the trumpeting of “publicity” as a check on secretive government in the 18th century.

In its rightful place, transparency is a public good. But when transparency is “out of place”—when it’s over-hyped and replaces values—it distorts the ethics of democracy and media. An understanding of what transparency can and cannot achieve is important because, across Western society, it is invoked as a master norm. 

In journalism, transparency is fashionable. Journalists who reject objectivity say: “I am biased but I am honest and transparent. I tell people where I am coming from.” Practitioners of the new nonprofit journalism use transparency to justify their close relations with funders.

Textbooks and codes of ethics make transparency a principle of good practice.

Transparency is more than a buzz word. Too often it is magical idea—a norm with seemingly magical powers to restore democracy. It is a “god” of institutional ethics.

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Hyping transparency distorts media ethics in several ways: it misunderstands the basis of media ethics, while blurring crucial differences among concepts; it wrongly implies that transparency can replace other principles and can resolve ethical issues created by new media.

So, what should be the place of transparency in journalism ethics?

Transparency is part of a web of values that journalists should weigh when making decisions. Often, other values trump transparency. Transparency is not an all-powerful god. It is only one of the gods in the pantheon of ethics.

My view consists of four claims:

  1. The basis of journalism ethics is not transparency. It is responsible publication for democracy. The latter is neither identical with, nor reducible to, transparency.
  2. Transparency is not sufficient for good journalistic practice.  
  3. Often, good journalism practice is non-transparent, like other democratic practices.
  4. Transparency cannot replace basic ideas, such as editorial independence.

Basis of ethics

Ethics can only exist when journalists have agreed to use responsibly their powers of publication. Being responsible means two things. First, a story-based responsibility: considering the impact of stories, following norms that restrain reckless publication and correcting errors. Second, a society-based responsibility: a commitment by journalists to fulfill their social role in democracy—accurately informing a public, revealing abuses of power and providing a plurality of perspectives. Only after we agree to do responsible journalism in the public interest do we move on to consider to what degree, and in which situations, journalists should be transparent.

Transparency encourages responsibility by exposing misconduct but actions can be responsible even where transparency is blocked. For example, a journalist may have a responsibility to protect confidential sources.

Whether a journalistic action should be transparent depends on notions of responsibility and social role, plus what other values are in play.

Web of values

Good professional practice is a holistic affair. Practitioners should honour a web of norms.

Journalism ethics consists of norms for doing journalism—accuracy, verification, fair editing and minimizing harm—and norms for showing how the journalism was done, such as accountability and transparency. Transparency finds its place within this web of norms.

Over-reliance on one norm may permit shoddy practice. Recent egregious errors in online journalism—e.g., the misidentification of suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing and a more recent shooting at a Washington, D.C., naval yard—are due to reliance on a couple of values.

The haste of online sites, bloggers and tweeters was due to the desire to share unchecked information in a “transparent” manner. Irresponsible publication occurred because other values, such as verification and minimizing harm, were absent and sorely missed.

Non-transparent practices

Transparency should not be identified with democratic practice. One can be non-transparent and democratic. This is because democracies value other values, such as privacy. Democracies allow confidential discussions between lawyers and clients and between management and union in collective bargaining. Democracies provide private voting booths and some countries prohibit the naming of young offenders.

Professionals are often non-transparent. A priest would be irresponsible to make public the information provided during confession. A teacher would be irresponsible if she made public the marks of the students in her class. In being non-transparent, the priest, lawyer and teacher are not undemocratic. They are being responsible and accountable.

Democracy balances transparent and non-transparent practices.

Journalists also use non-transparent policies. They don’t identify confidential sources, they minimize harm by not naming victims of sex abuse, they don’t make public a police operation to arrest terrorists minutes before it happens and embedded war reporters don’t reveal the location of their military units. Shield laws for American journalists—laws against revealing sources—are a non-transparent legal mechanism.

Journalism is not obligated to full transparency. Instead, it balances transparent and non-transparent practices.

Replacing independence?

Journalists Tom Rosenstiel and Kelly McBride, of the Poynter Institute, in Florida, have developed new ideas about transparency while updating the principles of the institute. Their study resulted in a new book, The New Ethics of Journalism. The book notes that the principle of independence cautioned a clearly defined group of professional journalists against conflicts of interest and allowing their allegiances to bias reports. Today, journalism is done by many new agents, from citizen journalists to think tanks. Some are objective, some are advocatory.

Rosenstiel, in a recent article, argued that “act independently” should be replaced by “be transparent.” Transparency needs to be expanded to cover not only how journalists developed their stories but also how they approach journalism. Are they advocates, objective reporters or otherwise? Transparency plus verification and accuracy, he said, will separate the good journalism from the bad journalism.

I agree that journalists should be transparent about their approaches to journalism. But it is better to talk of reforming the idea of independence, not replacing it.

Independence is about doing journalism. It insists that journalists not let allegiances and sources weaken their commitment to journalism in the public interest. Independence, not transparency, distinguishes journalism from propaganda, journalism from narrow advocacy. Appealing to an increase in the number of non-objective journalists does not undermine the ethical importance of independence.  Rather, the reverse. We should challenge the new kids on the block to persuade the public that they are truly independent.

Without independence, questionable journalism will fly under the flag of transparent journalism. One can be a transparent journalist, yet still be inaccurate and care little for verification or minimizing harm.

Just telling people “where you come from” is not enough for journalism ethics.  

Putting transparency in its place does not mean it is unimportant or that it must be a magical concept. We just have to be careful about how we define and rank it as a value.

We also need to go beyond a general understanding of its place in ethics. We need to develop concrete guidelines on how much weight to give transparency in different types of stories and in different forms of journalism.

The work of developing a detailed ethics of transparency lies in the future.