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Home > Publications > Quill > Ethics Toolbox

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Friday, June 20, 2014
Ethics Toolbox

Personal disclosure: Transparency isn’t enough

By Kevin Z. Smith

Transparency is the new objectivity. If you don’t believe me, ask many of journalism’s millennial ethicists; they’ll tell you it’s far better to be open about your conflicts than it is to be detached from them. That represents a significant step in a new ethical direction.

Over the past year I’ve seen transparency become the latest journalism buzzword, rolling off tongues without hesitation, embraced with little thought of what is being sacrificed in its place.

The idea has received a lot of traction, bolstered by a Poynter book from Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel. “The New Ethics of Journalism” has promoted the concept of transparency as a guiding principle, giving it a life of its own in a few short months.

The authors note that substantial journalism can be accomplished with a point of view, and journalists have a new mandate to “speak with authority in order to cut through the noise and serve the public.”

“With these changes in the market, transparency begins to supersede independence. Yet, we believe this new mandate is closer to the original concept of objectivity as it was meant when it was introduced from social science into journalism in the early 20th century.”

Don’t get me wrong; being transparent has always been an ethical ideal. But suggesting it can take the place of being mindfully independent and avoiding conflict seems problematic if we are striving for a stronger credibility with our public. Transparency in the place of avoidance of conflicts will erode credibility of the media, not build it up.

I also don’t see transparency as the original concept of objectivity. Rather, I see objectivity as awareness of one’s personal biases and the need to check those for the sake of responsible journalism. If you have beliefs that might interfere with your ability to be impartial and do a fair and accurate job of reporting, you either detach yourself from those beliefs for the sake of your reporting at that moment, or you step aside.

Struggling with a dilemma on deadline, or just want to talk about a tough call you’ve had to make? Call SPJ’s Ethics Hotline at (317) 927-8000, ext. 208. Leave a message, and a member of SPJ’s Ethics Committee will soon be in touch.

I like to think of objectivity as holding your breath under water. No one is asking you to do it 24/7. But, in those moments when it is necessary, such as reporting a story, then it’s incumbent on you to do your utmost to achieve that goal. The consequences in both cases are dire.

Over many years of manning the SPJ Ethics Hotline, I’ve listened to more than my share of living case studies where conflicts of interest were involved. Usually, near the end of such a conversation, I suggest, “Being transparent about the conflicts is the least that should be expected of the journalist.” Now, it seems that transparency is the most that can be expected in many minds.

I do agree with McBride and Rosenstiel when they say, “In a world in which an increasingly polarized public can choose from a wide array of sources for news, some consumers will demand this transparency.”

This demand for transparency should be welcomed by the media. But drilling down on this issue and seeing its practical application, I don’t believe substituting transparency via editor’s notes about the conflicts a writer may have regarding the story is a better enabler of public trust when the real solution would be to not allow that journalist to manage the story.

Telling me that you’re related to one of your sources, you contribute to a political campaign or you are an alumnus of the school will not offer me the assurance that the story is accurate and balanced. In fact, it will have the opposite effect.

Stephen Ward, a distinguished ethicist from Canada and a member of our extended ethics committee who is helping SPJ with its Code revisions this year, notes in an October 2013 column:

So, what should be the proper 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 media ethics.

My view consists of four claims:

• The basis of journalism ethics is not transparency. It is responsible publication for democracy. The latter is neither identical with, nor reducible to, transparency.

• Transparency is not sufficient for good journalistic practice.

• Often, good journalism practice is non-transparent, like other democratic practices.

• Transparency cannot replace basic ideas, such as editorial independence.

Ward points out here that transparency is not sufficient for good journalism. In fact he makes a point by suggesting that journalists are some of the least transparent people when it comes to what we share with the public. We don’t include all of our notes, video or audio outtakes, or supporting materials when we report. We distill the information into something manageable for people. Likewise, we withhold names of sexual assault victims, grant anonymity to sources and avoid reporting sensitive information that might jeopardize police or military actions. None of which speaks to prevailing transparency.

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

Unless we accept that transparency is not a substitute for objectivity or the outright avoidance of conflicts of interest, we will only continue to do damage to our integrity, because the public deserves to have none of your personal conflicts rather than your passive acknowledgement of them.

Kevin Z. Smith is chairman of the Ethics Committee and was the 2009-10 SPJ president. He has previously served as national secretary-treasurer and Region 4 director. He was also chairman of the Ethics Committee in 1995-97 when the Code of Ethics was revised. Smith spent 20 years as a newspaper reporter and editor. Contact him at ksmith@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @spjethicschair

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