Student journalists want to be taken seriously and you want people to view your publications as credible.
But the public is skeptical about what they hear and see from all news media, and news organizations’ credibility has continued to erode during the last decade.
This leads us to question what journalists can do to be viewed as deliverers of credible information. Some say the answer to this question lies in transparency.
Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information and senior legal fellow for the Student Press Law Center, joined #EditorTherapy chat earlier this semester to chat with student journalists about transparency.
Here’s what Frank had to say!
Note: Remember that Frank was writing in Tweet form. I’ve compiled his tweets here to make it easier, but don’t go all grammar snob on us. Just take the lessons from the content. Fair? Ok.
Q1: What is transparency?
Frank: To me, transparency is a mindset. It’s a culture that says “we make an effort to disclose everything we possibly can” and that’s the starting point. It’s like your math teacher always told you: “Show your work.”
Student media is in a way better position than professional media to build trust with readers at a formative time in their lives. You don’t focus on the polarizing partisan issues on which people have entrenched, extreme beliefs.
Q2: How does transparency relate to or result in perceptions of credibility?
Frank: Secrecy breeds distrust. We know this, as journalists, when we deal with government. Decisions that are made behind closed doors and not adequately explained to the public lack legitimacy. The same might be true for our own decisions.
Large portions of the public have been preconditioned to disbelieve what journalists tell them. They’ve had it hammered into them by talk-radio and social media that journalists distort information or selectively use information toward an agenda.
This isn’t a chat about diversity, but let’s never forget that. Lack of diversity in the newsroom and in the people who are quoted breeds lack of trust. If you can’t hire a staff that looks like your community, at least make sure you’re quoting and photographing everyone.
Q3: We can assume that, if transparency were simple to enact, all journalists would be doing it. Why is this concept so difficult in practice?
Frank: As journalists, we’ve been taught that we’re not the story and that the reader isn’t interested in us. That’s true. You’re the provider of information and that information is your product. But the information is more trusted if people know where it came from.
We all take for granted that people understand how our jobs work, so we don’t have to explain it, but we absolutely do. There’s not just a lack of information, there’s affirmative disinformation now. People affirmatively believe news is fabricated.
One example is the dateline on a story. Forever and ever, we assumed people would see that “Paris” dateline on a story and realize “oh, the reporter was actually in Paris.” But you can’t assume that.
When you go to the scene of news, it’s really important to say so, now more than ever since so many people are just reblogging stuff from a booth in Panera. Showing that you’re an eyewitness adds greatly to believability.
That also means visuals: Even if it’s a boring picture, throw it up on the website anyway to show that you were on the scene. That helps, too, with stuff like crowd estimates: Don’t just tell me 1,000 people marched, show me.
It’s like the organic-food movement: People want to know if they’re eating stuff that’s full of hormones or pesticides. The interviews you did and the trips you took are your ingredients and your nutrition label.
Q4: How can student journalists practice transparency in their reporting?
Frank: Example from something I observed recently here in Gainesville. The local paper did a very legitimate story about how candidates for city office had serious legal problems in their backgrounds, both civil and criminal.
All the candidates with legal troubles happened to be African-American, so the optic was – and the community’s reaction was – “the newspaper only writes about candidates’ legal problems when they’re black.”
The editors came back afterward and explained “no, we do this background check every election cycle, it’s routine” but you can’t expect readers to remember what you did four years ago. It would’ve been better to anticipate that optic.
That doesn’t mean “don’t do the story” at all, but consider prefacing the story by saying “we do this routinely in every election and we did it for every candidate for every seat” and explaining why people’s legal troubles might reflect on their fitness.
Anticipation would’ve helped the editors at Texas State when they published an angry anti-white diatribe in a guest column. You don’t just roll the grenade into the room and walk away. If you use something that incendiary, explain why.
Also, just get the heck out of the newsroom and into the community, physically. People hate “The Media” but they like the individual reporters they meet, especially at the community level. So meet lots of people. Be visible and be findable.
This is SUCH a pet peeve: Newsrooms that hide their journalists’ contact information. It used to be universal for every byline to have a click-through to email the reporter, but somehow we got away from that (maybe spam?). Your job is to be found by people with news.
Q5: How can student journalists report transparently without speaking in their own voice to the audience?
Frank: A lot of the work of transparency has to belong to the editors and not the writers. You can accomplish a lot by editors’ notes or editors’ accompanying columns.
It’s not indicative of bias, or inserting yourself in the story, to explain where the story came from. If the story came from a reader tip and that helps the audience understand the rationale for doing it, why not say so?
If you look at what people like Hearken do, their model is to explain “we got this story because a reader called and suggested it,” so the audience knows journalists aren’t sitting around making stuff up or selectively targeting people they don’t like.
Q6: Transparency is said to mean telling the audience what you know and what you don’t know. How can student journalists know what they don’t know and when that information should be reported and missing knowledge?
Frank: This is part of the “Rolling Stone problem” we should all have been sensitized to when Rolling Stone got sued for publishing what appears to be a fabricated account of sexual assault at UVA. The story came off way more certain than the reporter really was.
The start is with good attribution: “Two witnesses said this happened” is different from saying “this happened.” A lot of high-end magazine and book storytelling just presents unattributed reconstructions of history as fact, but that’s not a sound journalistic technique.
As a reporter, you have to drill down on your sources’ basis of knowledge: “Did you actually see the fight with your own two eyes, or are you repeating the version that went around the fraternity house?”
As an editor, you have to do the same with your reporters. “How do we know this” is my Swiss Army knife editing question. I’d do that with every unattributed factual assertion that’s at all sensitive: “How do we know this?”
When something feels like it’s missing to you as the reporter, the audience will notice too: “Why didn’t they talk to the police chief?” So you need to identify the holes and acknowledge them up-front: “The chief refused six requests for an interview.”
Q7: A huge part of transparent reporting seems to be telling the audience about the reporting process. How do student journalists reveal the process without seeming like they’re complaining about the work behind the reporting?
Frank: It’s a time-honored technique of investigative journalism to say “we conducted 75 interviews over a six-month period…” to give the reporting extra gravity. If it works for the six-month project, consider whether it works for the one-week project.
It’s not complaining to say “we did X amount of work.” In fact, it’s valuable for the public to know “we tried for four months to get the police chief to sit down for an interview and he refused six requests.” That tells the public something about the chief.
Labeling is important to transparency. Lots of news websites (including major professional ones) intermingle straight news and commentary without adequate labeling. Make clear that the article is one person’s opinion, or the whole editorial board’s.
Look at what the Wall Street Journal is doing with large (sometimes full-page) house ads that tout their reporters’ experience and credentials. Might you do that with your editors? “I’ve spent four years on this campus digging up stories for you.”
Q8: Another aspect of transparent reporting is backing up what you’re telling the audience with documents and public records. What are some types of records student journalists should consider making available to their audiences?
Frank: There are tons of resources on Student Press Law Center about this, but a few for starters: Police log entries and incident reports. Filings made by the parties in lawsuits, or court rulings. Where they’re available, public employees’ personnel write-ups.
As a rule of thumb, if you’ve got a document that supports some disputed fact in a story that would help the reader feel more confident that your story is genuine, why not upload the original document?
Journalists have gotten (in a good way) sassier about showing off insanely over-redacted documents they get from government agencies, so consider that too: Upload those blanked-out pages or those FOIA denials. Jason Leopold
Q9: What role does citizen journalism play (if any) in transparent reporting?
ProPublica does an amazing job of inviting readers to contribute to ongoing stories. They’ll get the story started, but encourage people to upload or submit other examples. That really shows you’re open to learning more.
Q10: Transparent reporting makes student journalists more involved in a dialogue with their audiences. How do student journalists best participate in this conversation, especially when audience members are being negative toward or critical of them?
First thing, don’t snap at every piece of bait. Not everyone who tweets at you is necessarily owed a response if you have no idea who they are. As we’re finding out, social media is full of fake accounts run by people with hidden agendas.
If you get a quality piece of engagement – a comment from someone who (a) is in the story or (b) actually read it and isn’t a bot – then by all means engage. But not defensively. Keep reporting: “Tell me more, how are you involved? Come by the newsroom.”
My tip for defusing every confrontation is, pretend you’re on Jeopardy. Every statement must be in the form of a question. “What do you feel like the story is missing?” is a conversation-starter. “I’m not biased, you are” is a conversation ender.
You do need a thick skin to do anything in the public arena today, but I cringe when people say “I got attacked on Twitter.” Y’know what? They’re tweets. They go away. Journalists get murdered once a month in Mexico. Log off for a day if it bothers you.
Q11: Examples? What are some of what you consider to be the best examples of transparent reporting by student journalists?
Frank: Everything the Indiana Daily Student does is always great, but their recent series on campus sexual assault was especially powerful.
You can see right up-front how they explain their process: We got these records, we conducted these interviews, we spent this much time, and here’s why we are departing from our usual practice and showing victims’ names and faces. That’s transparency.
I absolutely love learning from #EditorTherapy guests, and I learned so much from Frank. Thank you again, Frank, for being our guest.
If you’d like to know more about the chat in general, check out #EditorTherapy. The chat is at 9 p.m. CST Wednesdays.
I hope to see you during the next #EditorTherapy!