Part Four: Transparency, Accountability and Independence
Journalistic transparency and accountability overview
Transparency is a relatively new concept for journalists. As modern journalism developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, the one-way nature of publishers and broadcasters reporting the news and sending it to their audiences had little need to lay bare the processes by which they collected and produced the news. The audience had few choices, so it had to accept the American system of journalism as it was. As the 21st Century dawned, the combination of an explosion of news choices and the development of social media as a two-way tool to reach news producers, journalistic institutions found they needed to change.
Accountability found its footing a bit earlier, based on ethical norms shared by journalists that basically call for a constant need to be able to defend the practices used to produce news stories. Early on, that accountability was often internal-facing, meaning a journalist needed to feel confident she could face her newsroom colleagues and defend her tactics on any story. As transparency grew into a newsroom norm, the two merged into a single internal/external approach to open journalistic practice. It’s important to note that general accountability in journalism should not be confused with what is specifically called “accountability journalism,” a subset of investigative journalism that focuses an aggressive beat reporting approach for finding corruption in all aspects of society.
Interestingly, transparency and accountability have begun to supplant the old journalistic standard of objectivity in reporting. As documentary filmmakers have long known, true objectivity is unachievable in any human endeavor. Journalists clung to that standard through the first century of modern journalism, suggesting their stories could be objective by being fair, balanced and without bias. As partisan differences helped fragment the media at the beginning of this century, objectivity became less important for that portion of the audience seeking news reporting that supported its political views. Transparency, on the other hand, allowed news consumers to know how the journalism was being made and to make their own decisions about whether a particular news source was reporting news in the “right” way. All the major journalism organizations call for transparency and accountability in their codes of ethics. For example, the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) has a section entitled “Independence and transparency” in which it lists the following standards for journalists to follow:
Editorial independence may be a more ambitious goal today than ever before. Media companies, even if not-for-profit, have commercial, competitive and other interests – both internal and external — from which the journalists they employ cannot be entirely shielded. Still, independence from influences that conflict with public interest remains an essential ideal of journalism. Transparency provides the public with the means to assess credibility and to determine who deserves trust.
Acknowledging sponsor-provided content, commercial concerns or political relationships is essential, but transparency alone is not adequate. It does not entitle journalists to lower their standards of fairness or truth.
Disclosure, while critical, does not justify the exclusion of perspectives and information that are important to the audience’s understanding of issues.
Journalism’s proud tradition of holding the powerful accountable provides no exception for powerful journalists or the powerful organizations that employ them. To profit from reporting on the activities of others while operating in secrecy is hypocrisy.
Effectively explaining editorial decisions and processes does not mean making excuses. Transparency requires reflection, reconsideration and honest openness to the possibility that an action, however well intended, was wrong.
Ethical journalism requires owning errors, correcting them promptly and giving corrections as much prominence as the error itself had.
Commercial endorsements are incompatible with journalism because they compromise credibility. In journalism, content is gathered, selected and produced in the best interests of viewers, listeners and readers – not in the interests of somebody who paid to have a product or position promoted and associated with a familiar face, voice or name.
Similarly, political activity and active advocacy can undercut the real or perceived independence of those who practice journalism. Journalists do not give up the rights of citizenship, but their public exercise of those rights can call into question their impartiality.
The acceptance of gifts or special treatment of any kind not available to the general public creates conflicts of interest and erodes independence. This does not include the access to events or areas traditionally granted to working journalists in order to facilitate their coverage. It does include “professional courtesy” admission, discounts and “freebies” provided to journalists by those who might someday be the subject of coverage. Such goods and services are often offered as enticements to report favorably on the giver or rewards for doing so; even where that is not the intent, it is the reasonable perception of a justifiably suspicious public.
Commercial and political activities, as well as the acceptance of gifts or special treatment, cause harm even when the journalists involved are “off duty” or “on their own time.”
Attribution is essential. It adds important information that helps the audience evaluate content and it acknowledges those who contribute to coverage. Using someone else’s work without attribution or permission is plagiarism.
Similarly, the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) code of ethics, in its “Be Accountable and Transparent” section, states:
Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public. Journalists should:
Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.
Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness.
Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.
Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations.
Abide by the same high standards they expect of others.
Documentary filmmakers, who often reject journalists’ desire for straight-down-the-middle balance, may still find some guidance in this striving for transparency and accountability. This approach allows filmmakers to face characters in their films as well as members of the audience and answer the questions that might come from those encounters.
Anonymous or confidential sources
One of the most difficult decisions a journalist must ever make is whether to include anonymous or confidential sources in a report. Aside from the potential legal risk of withholding the identity of a source—particularly in areas without the protection of a shield law—the use of this sort of sourcing runs the risk of sending the wrong message to audience members. Audience members have grown increasingly skeptical of stories in which sources are not named. Part of this skepticism is tied to the rise in transparency in news reporting. Transparency and anonymous sources are clearly at odds with each other and modern audiences see that.
Still, most journalists are quick to affirm that it would very hard to do important political and investigative stories without anonymous sources. Perhaps the greatest feat of investigative reporting in modern journalism—coverage of the Watergate scandal—would not have been possible without Deep Throat, Woodward and Bernstein’s confidential source. The motivation on the source’s part to hide his or her identity come from those sources holding positions of power, knowledge or influence they would jeopardize were they to allow their names to be used in association with journalistic reports. In that way, news consumers benefit from the very sources of which they are the most skeptical.
Visual reporting, like television news or documentaries, suffers the most from the use of anonymous sources. While a newspaper report can simply cite “unnamed sources” in its copy, visual reporting efforts must hide the face and disguise the voice of its anonymous sources.
Most journalism organizations have a set of internal guidelines or questions to answer to justify the use of an anonymous source in a story. These questions often focus on what other steps have been taken to get the information, the anonymous source’s motivation and the importance of the story. The Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) coverage guidelines for anonymous sources describes a process with which to reach this decision. First the guidelines call for the story to fulfill four criteria necessary to use an anonymous source. Those criteria are:
A story that uses confidential sources should be of overwhelming public concern.
Before offering a source anonymity, you and your news managers must be convinced there is no other way to get the essential information on the record.
You and your news managers must be convinced the unnamed source has verifiable knowledge of the story. Even if the source cannot be named, the information must be proven true.
You and your news managers must be willing to publicly describe the source in as detailed a manner as anonymity permits (this may include the source’s political party, agency or workplace affiliation, etc.), reveal to the public why the source cannot be named and what, if any, promises the news organization made in order to get the information.
If a story meets these four criteria, RTDNA’s guidelines ask the journalists involved to consider a substantial battery of questions:
What does the use of a confidential source mean to the factual accuracy and contextual authenticity of your story?
Does this source deserve the protection of his/her identity? Will revealing the source threaten the safety of the source, their family or their livelihood?
What legal obligations do you incur by promising not to reveal this source’s name? If you are sued, are you willing to go to jail to protect this source? If you are sued, will the source come forward and be named? Is the reluctance justifiable?
How would viewers/listeners evaluate the same information if they knew the source’s name and motivations?
If you promised to protect a source’s identity, are you using production techniques that will insure the protection you promised? What if a lawyer subpoenas the raw tapes? Would the person be identifiable in the tape outtakes?
Do you understand your newsroom’s policy on confidentiality before you promise it to sources? Consider a policy that requires you to obtain the consent of your news managers before agreeing to anonymity, and a related policy requiring you reveal the source’s identity to news managers before the story involved airs. You should inform your source of this policy and that you might have to identity them to others in your newsroom.
Finally, the RTDNA guidelines ask journalists and managers to consider some final points when using confidential sources:
When reporting or referencing the work of another news outlet whose story contains an anonymous source, be sure to attribute the information to that outlet and describe its sources as clearly as possible.
Before accepting information “on background,” “not for attribution” or “off the record,” ensure that you and your source have a shared understanding of what any such terms mean. Be as specific as possible about the level of confidentiality you are providing.
Create a policy at your station for handling sources who may ask for anonymity after the interview has occurred.
Journalists should consider these guidelines when analyzing confidential sources as well as persons who do not wish to have their faces on camera or names used in reports.
These questions can be duplicated by documentary filmmakers as they consider using anonymous sources in their films. Where newsrooms or stations often have policies for a consistent use of anonymous sources, individual filmmakers and their teams can work to write their own personal guidelines for this approach to filmmaking.
When can a filmmaker or journalist mispresent herself for the sake of the story she is trying to tell? Once again, this is an act with potential ethical and legal consequences. Misrepresentation usually consists of the act of pretending to be something other than a journalist or filmmaker or directly lying about the truth of your identity. In visual journalism, this can sometimes involve the use of hidden cameras or microphones so as not to give away the fact that one is a journalist.
The single case that best pits the needs for journalists to tell the truth versus the potential benefit to a story by misrepresentation is the reporting done on the Food Lion grocery chain by ABC in 1992. After being tipped to unsanitary practices in the packaging and sale of meet at the chain, two ABC News producers pretended to be regular job applicants at two Food Lion stores in North and South Carolina to get jobs in the meat department of those stores. The two were hired and, with the help of hidden cameras, exposed the unsanitary practices on the ABC News program PrimeTime Live. Rather than suing about the broadcast itself, Food Lion sued about the action of the ABC employees, claiming the pair committed fraud in applying for the jobs but not revealing they were journalists, along with breach of duty of loyalty, trespass and unfair trade practices. The chain asked for compensatory damages to reclaim wages paid and the cost of training and employing the producers, along with punitive damages. After initially winning a judgement of more than $5.5 million against ABC, appellate courts eventually threw out the fraud claim, insisting it was used as a way around a classical libel claim, which was not substantiated by the facts. In the end, the only claims that remained intact against ABC and its employees were the breach of loyalty and trespass judgements and a nominal fine of just two dollars.
Despite ABC News eventually prevailing in the case, more than 25 years after the fact it still raises questions among journalists about when and where it is appropriate to misrepresent oneself to get a story. Many insist deception and misrepresentation be used only when the stakes are high and other methods have been exhausted. Ethicist Bob Steele developed a checklist for the Poynter Institute that journalists and filmmakers can use to determine whether to deceive for the sake of a story. Steele suggests that it might be appropriate to use deception, misrepresentation and/or hidden cameras if all of these criteria are met:
When the information obtained is of profound importance. It must be of vital public interest, such as revealing great “system failure” at the top levels, or it must prevent profound harm to individuals.
When all other alternatives for obtaining the same information have been exhausted.
When the journalists involved are willing to disclose the nature of the deception and the reason for it.
When the individuals involved and their news organization apply excellence, through outstanding craftsmanship as well as the commitment of time and funding needed to pursue the story fully.
When the harm prevented by the information revealed through deception outweighs any harm caused by the act of deception.
When the journalists involved have conducted a meaningful, collaborative, and deliberative decision-making process on the ethical and legal issues.
Steele goes on to say that deception is not justified in these cases:
To win a journalism or reporting prize.
To beat the competition.
To get the story with less expense of time and resources.
Doing it because “others already did it.”
When the subjects of the story are themselves unethical.
Some journalists lament that reporters do not use these techniques enough, citing a history of important investigative reporting that has resulted from news organizations setting up situations or infiltrating corrupt organizations by means of deception. This approach has been taken up by partisan media figures like James O’Keefe of Project Veritas, a right-wing sting operation focused on embarrassing mainstream journalists. Those mainstream journalists fear they have yielded this effective practice to the fringes.
Conflicts of interest
The codes of ethics of most journalism organizations and companies include a call for independence. For example, in its ethics handbook, National Public Radio (NPR) states: “To secure the public’s trust, we must make it clear that our primary allegiance is to the public. Any personal or professional interests that conflict with that allegiance, whether in appearance or in reality, risk compromising our credibility. We are vigilant in disclosing to both our supervisors and the public any circumstances where our loyalties may be divided – extending to the interests of spouses and other family members – and when necessary, we recuse ourselves from related coverage. Under no circumstances do we skew our reports for personal gain, to help NPR’s bottom line or to please those who fund us. Decisions about what we cover and how we do our work are made by our journalists, not by those who provide NPR with financial support.” This statement sums up the effort of most journalists to avoid conflicts of interest or, perhaps more importantly, the perception of a conflict of interest even where none exists.
That focus on perception is crucial to maintaining the trust of audiences for journalists. Actual conflict of interest is rare—journalists can move through the world without succumbing to the temptations of selling out. But the apparent conflict of interest happens much easier. For example, allowing a source to buy a journalist a free lunch is unlikely to change anything about the way a story is written. But the appearance exists that the journalist was “bought out,” and the public can believe that, even though the lunch had no impact on the story.
Political conflicts of interest are often what journalists try hardest to avoid. Some journalistic purists don’t even vote, saying that action may influence how they cover a candidate or issue. But most journalists point out that voting is a private act and cannot be used by the audience to perceive conflict of interest or bias. Still, nearly all journalists refrain from contributing to political candidates or campaigns, attending political rallies and events (unless there to cover them) or displaying political signs, bumper stickers, etc. on their property.
Recognizing conflicts of interest can be the first step to avoiding them. The Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) has a series of questions in its coverage guidelines about conflicts of interest to ask oneself to determine if the appearance of a conflict of interest exists. Those questions are:
Will the private actions of a journalist with a news source or newsmaker give the appearance of an unprofessional connection? Audience members may react with suspicion to revelations of friendships or romances that develop between journalists and their sources—particularly if there is ongoing coverage of a beat or story. Journalists and their managers must realize relationships that would be perfectly acceptable between other adults might not be viewed in the same way when there is also a journalist-source relationship.
Will the actions of a journalist’s or newsroom manager’s family members with a news source or newsmaker give the appearance of an unprofessional connection? In the same way the personal actions of journalists on their private time may come into question, the actions of their spouses and family members may do the same. How will actions of those close to a journalist be perceived by audience members?
Is it ever acceptable to accept gifts from a source on a story? If so, is there a monetary value limit on that gift. The FCC’s rules call for specific disclosure of payment to air material. But what if the gift comes not in connection with airing specific content? What other motivation might there be for the gift? Consider the appearances created with the audience if the gift were disclosed publicly.
Will you accept free admission to parks and events you are covering, even when the general public must pay for the same access? Some ethicists insist journalists covering events requiring a ticket should pay the same fee ticket buyers do, while others insist free access is part of the coverage process. Managers should discuss what sorts of events merit free access and if any do not.
Will you accept free travel from sources? Most journalists will accept a ride in a pickup truck to the local farmer’s pumpkin patch, but will they also accept a free ride on an airline showing off a new route? Journalists and managers should consider whether they will accept free transportation and in what form. Will the station insist on buying tickets to those forms of transportation that require passengers to do the same? How will you divulge to your audience that you have taken the free transportation?
Will newsroom personnel be allowed to “moonlight” with interests that may be the subject of news coverage? Can on-air personalities do commercial appearances or voice over work? Many stations have arrangements that allow newsroom personnel to work elsewhere, but managers should ask what sort of conflicts of interest might be perceived from such relationships. For instance, can a sportscaster also broadcast games for a local team on its payroll? Many journalists see it as their duty to take part in public service work. Does that work present any conflicts of interest? RTDNA’s guidelines on for on-air charitable solicitations may be of some help.
Does the subject matter of a story benefit the reporter, the manager, or the station? Would members of the audience perceive a story is done for the monetary benefit of the station or any of its employees? If so, is there another source or approach for the story that would eliminate that potential conflict of interest?
Does the station have a policy on if and how employees can participate in political campaigns? Are journalists and their managers treated differently in the policy than other station employees? Journalists face the constant scrutiny of those looking for political bias in their coverage. Voting is a private act, but public participation in political events, campaign contributions, or personal messages of support on private time have no place in the life of most journalists. Stations should develop a very specific list of what political activity is never acceptable for their journalists and other employees.
Is there a system in place to allow journalists and managers to recuse themselves from editorial decisions about stories from which a conflict of interest—real or perceived—may arise? Do reporters and editors have a clear picture of what constitutes a conflict large enough to call for their withdrawal from a story? Managers should take time to consider inevitable conflicts that may arise and discuss how to deal with them before the conflict occurs.
Finally, is there a whistleblower system in the newsroom that allows anyone to point out possible conflicts of interest so that management can act on them? Is the review of all work for possible conflicts of interest a regular part of the newsroom culture?
As most journalists live and work in the communities they cover, some real and perceived conflicts of interest may be inevitable. Furthermore, some stories affect everyone—including journalists—and have the possibility to yield conflicts of interest that cannot be avoided. When those cases arise, journalists and managers can ask themselves the following questions about if and how they will reveal the conflicts to the public:
When and how will you disclose personal connections that could result in perceptions of conflict of interest even if managers have decided the reporter is able to cover a story? What if those connections are of a very personal nature? Managers must decide what information the public deserves so that audience members can make their own sound decisions about whether conflicts of interest exist.
Will you disclose connections the owners of your station have with sources and subjects of stories? The corporate ownership of most television and radio stations produces conflicts of interest in the area of business and finance. Managers should consider whether to disclose ownership relationships when covering stories about companies with common or connected ownership.
How will the connections above be inserted in the story? In the introduction, the tag, both, or in some other way? Managers should examine the proper place to run disclaimers of ownership and other possible conflicts of interest which properly inform the audience about the connection but do not create perceptions of conflict where they do not exist.
Finally, if an employee commits a violation of the station’s rules regarding conflict of interest, will that violation be disclosed to the public? If so, how? Aside from the station’s personnel policies for disciplining the employee, managers should consider how the violation would be perceived if the public found out and consider whether to make that information part of follow-up or continuing coverage of the story.
Filmmakers will find some of the above questions odd, considering the way in which they often interact with the characters in their films. Relationships that are far too close for comfort for a journalist can be essential to the filmmaking dynamic between director and character in a documentary. Still, the audience watching a completed film is trained to look for conflicts of interest in that film the same way it would in journalistic content. So even if a filmmaker considers all the relationships formed in making a film appropriate, it’s good to anticipate what audience members may think and ask about the dynamics of those relationships.
Data and documents
It’s a clichéd view of journalism to picture a grizzled editor yelling at the young reporter to “Follow the paper trail!” But the cliché stems from the real foundations of how journalists work—by having the documentation to back up what they report. The recent film The Post revolves around the reporting of the Pentagon Papers, perhaps the biggest case of documentation in 20th Century journalism. Reporters at the Washington Post and New York Times sifted through those 7000 pages in an analog world, examining each by hand to find the newsworthiness of every single page.
Documents in the 21st Century come digitally and the sifting is often done by computers piloted by data reporters. Edward Snowden’s release of NSA documents to Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald happened electronically, putting perhaps 2 million documents into the filmmaker and journalist’s hands. Even releases of data a fraction of that size often need sophisticated software and computer skills to analyze the tsunami of information stored within.
To help train people how to examine and use the digital data that exists, organizations like the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR) have sprung up. NICAR offers filmmakers, journalists and citizens access to government databases, analysis for newsrooms or individuals sifting through data, training in acquiring, cleaning and analyzing data and guidance on how to use the data effectively and ethically.
The best practices of using data to tell a story follow a three-tier structure approach: acquisition, analysis and presentation. Acquisition refers, of course, to obtaining the data. In many cases, this can be a very difficult stage. Many times, the data come from government sources, which would seem to make this an easy task. But some agencies fight to block the release of data with large fees or by requiring very specific requests (as detailed in the public information section of this resource). Other times, the data are available, but contain such a massive amount of information that it is difficult to see where the story lies. That’s where the next step, analysis, comes in. Simple data sets can be analyzed “by hand,” with a filmmaker examining records and looking for patterns. But most modern datasets require computer-assisted analysis, using software as simple as Microsoft Excel or as complex as massive, custom-written programs. Special training is typically needed to do the analysis of complex datasets, so filmmakers can either seek out that training or partner with experts who have the tools and training to do the analysis. The final step is presentation, at which filmmakers excel based on their storytelling skills. Good data analysis often leads to simple stories. Those stories can be fleshed out with characters to tell the impact of what the data show. In some cases, data visualization can help filmmakers show the size, scope or pattern of the data analyzed. Like working with any animator, data visualization experts can join films as partners to help with the final presentation.
People make mistakes and journalists are people. So in any effort at journalism, the risk of mistakes is there. There are two types of error with which journalists must deal—errors made in the reporting process that are caught along the way and errors that make it into publication. That first type of error requires a great deal of effort on the part of journalists to find and eliminate so that it doesn’t become the second kind. This process is commonly called “verification.” What journalists do to snuff out errors before they go to press can be a lesson to filmmaker on how to prevent embarrassing—and sometimes costly—errors in the final product.
Dating back to the very beginning of journalistic practice, the role of an editor is crucial to error-free reporting and storytelling. Famed author—and editor—Timothy Foote proclaimed “Everyone needs an editor” and journalists swear by this maxim. In journalistic good practice no story, with the exception of pure live reporting on television or online, goes to the public without an editor looking at it first. Filmmakers have their own version of this practice as they typically have colleagues or trusted friends look over their cuts during the editing process. Directors, editors and producers play a rotating role of “editor” as films are put together.
But a less common practice among journalists and filmmakers alike is the use of a fact checker to verify all the verifiable information in a story. Fact checkers are still common at book publishers, some magazines and a handful of online news outlets. Their role is to independently verify anything and everything that can be challenged, from simply checking the reported age of an individual to a line by line verification of complex financial information. As journalists rush more than ever to be first with stories in a world where every outlet competes online, the need for slowness in reporting to allow fact checkers to do their work is stronger than ever before. Filmmakers enjoy a reprieve from the need to be first and have an opportunity to use fact checkers fully.