Journalistic transparency in a red-state-blue-state world

What should we as journalists share about ourselves? When does our disclosure enhance our credibility? When does our transparency lead to a deeper connection with our audience?

In my Participatory Journalism class last week, we muddled our way through those questions. And the questions came up again in the Columbia Missourian newsroom on election night. (That is, after all, how we teach here: We look at principles in the classroom, and reinforce them on the job.)

We talked in class, of course, about the View from Nowhere. We talked about where we’re all coming from, and what perspectives we bring to the choices we make as journalists. We all have biases that we bring to story selection, to the framing of stories, to the questions we ask, to the decisions we make about word choice.

We talked about this modern, American notion that we should all step outside ourselves to do Proper Journalism — a notion that doesn’t always hold up if you work in a small town where everyone knows all about you, or if you work elsewhere on the globe, where partisan journalism is expected and preferred. I got to rant about the word objectivity, and how being separate from what we cover doesn’t always lead to journalism that’s reflective of its intended audience.

It feels safe to say that nowhere is the “o” word more invoked than in the case of Journalists vs. U.S. Politics. We don’t share our opinions or ideologies publicly. We don’t admit we have them. Heck, sometimes we don’t even vote.

Here’s the thing: This drives me crazy, and I’d love to see it change. But politics doesn’t feel like the right area for us to experiment with transparency, especially at a community newspaper.

Normally, I’m the first person to jump in with suggestions for transparency and disclosure. I think the perspectives we bring to our work should more often be celebrated. But I get so exhausted when arguments about journalistic transparency become quickly about issues of red states and blue states. When I talk about transparency, I think of other biases.

When one of the Missourian’s reporters, Elizabeth Scheltens, talked in the newsroom about how her work as an elementary school teacher affected her education reporting (in both helpful and challenging ways), I suggested that my team put her in front of a video camera and make her talk about that. (We’ve done other videos like that, about coverage of a murder trial, for example, and about life in the press box at football games.)

I asked my students last week if they could think of times when our community would have an interest in knowing things about journalists’ lives. Things like their:

  • Religion. (What if I’m Catholic, and managing coverage of a priest sex abuse case, or Mormon and covering Mitt Romney?)
  • Volunteer activities. (What if I volunteer at a the food bank we’re covering, or at Planned Parenthood?)
  • Family life. (What if my husband has a high-profile job, or my kids go to the school that might lose busing?)
  • Financial investments. (What if, like Kara Swisher at AllThingsD, I feel the need to disclose that my wife is an executive at a giant tech company? And therefore also disclose that I’m gay, and married, and clearly not a supporter of a controversial California proposition?)
  • Background. (What if I have a set of experiences that makes me especially qualified to do what I do, and there’s no easy way for my community to learn that about me?)

The Boston Globe has produced a series of video interviews with staff members, and some of them do a terrific job of inviting me not only to connect with a byline but also to trust the knowledge behind it.

Check out Carolyn Johnson, who covers science and talks about growing up a science geek and double majoring in physics and English. And Frank Phillips, who’s the State House bureau chief and grew up in a political family. He manages to both demonstrate a deep knowledge of how Massachusetts politics work and persuade me that, though he’s at home in the club, he wouldn’t hesitate to question its members.

In our newsroom, editors fill out statements about themselves. One of my favorites is Katherine Reed’s. In reading Katherine’s bio, I learn that:

  • She leads coverage of public safety and health care for the Missourian.
  • She strives to do watchdog journalism, and has examples to prove it.
  • She has local connections but has lived and worked around the world.
  • Her work as a victims’ advocate shapes how she teaches crime and court reporting.
  • She’s involved in and invested in the life of her community, and has examples to prove it.

A link to Katherine’s bio (which includes her contact information) is at the end of every story for which she’s the supervising editor, and she says that she gets story tips based on that. In finding her email address, readers are also invited to connect with her and trust her.

You’ll notice there’s nothing in Katherine’s profile about how she voted this week. And in our community, for her job, I don’t think that would be useful or constructive for her to share.

So let’s please look for ways to be more human and more three dimensional. Let’s share our backgrounds and our experiences in ways that enhance our credibility. And let’s do it in a way that recognizes that, for many of us, how we spend our Saturdays and what we like to read have more to do with our day-to-day jobs than our politics do.


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