The New York Times is building a new headquarters in midtown Manhattan. One of its distinctive features: a curtain wall of glass. A media release for the project says, “The screen and glass curtain wall will provide a sense of lightness and transparency.”
The Times also is striving for transparency in more important ways. It announced in early May the results of a report that recommended the paper take steps such as having editors write more regularly about the workings of the paper, tracking errors more rigorously and limiting the use of anonymous sources.
These kinds of steps are overdue. In the past several decades, our audience, the American people, has grown more educated and much more capable of critical thought. The Census Bureau reports that as late as 1960, only 60 percent of Americans had graduated high school; now, 85 percent have. In 1960, barely 10 percent of the adult population held a bachelor’s degree; now, more than a quarter do. Such an audience is equipped to question our methods, our thoroughness and our motives. They are entitled to a fuller explanation of what goes into our stories and deserve more information about how we do our jobs.
And I don’t just mean the occasional column by ombudsmen or citizen advisory boards (though both of those practices are valuable). I think we have to take more space on our pages, more time on the air, when we have people’s attention, to tell them not just what the news is, but how we’re finding it.
Imagine a story. Not a big, splashy series of stories accompanied by a “how we did it sidebar.” I mean a routine story: the coverage of a new business development in town, charges by a local environmental group, maybe a shooting downtown. Now imagine a box next to the text that says to get this story, our reporter conducted five in-person interviews, made nine other phone calls (four of them to one source), two of which were never returned. We called a freelance photographer to get a portrait shot of the story’s main subject. We asked an intern to fetch some paperwork from a courthouse and had our library staff pull three clippings and one file photo. I’ll bet the reader of your typical story would be astonished to find out how much work goes into many news stories. Why not tell them?
When I mentioned this to a group of editorial page editors in Oregon, one wondered aloud whether this very same information could be turned against us, used by our critics to hoist us on our own standards, if you will. Well, so what? We set standards with the goal of reaching them, as often as possible, all the time if we can. When we don’t, we shouldn’t be afraid of paying the price. I know none of us are perfect, but fair-minded people understand that. It’s when we pretend to be something other than fallible humans that we really set ourselves up to be slammed. Think about CBS after it spent 10 days trying to stick by its questionable “Bush papers” story. Or Newsweek, which took two weeks to retract its story that a government report included information about American desecration of a Quran.
These and other high-profile incidents leave us with some work to do in order to rebuild our standing with the public. Some of that work will be accomplished by simply doing our jobs, doing them well, day in and day out. That’s what yields results in the long term. In the short term, SPJ is embarking, along with other journalism organizations, on a drive to enact a federal shield law. This is a political goal, and one we won’t achieve without a lot of support. We are working with the broadest coalition of friendly groups we can muster, but we will help ourselves if the public has a better understanding that our access to sources is important to them. Which brings us back to transparency.
Your national society is trying to do its part by reviving its “Project Watchdog” public outreach efforts. But you can do your part, too. Get out more to speak with local groups. Follow The Times’ example at your newspaper, broadcast or online outlet. Consider my modest little proposal above. Or come up with other ideas and remember to use the tools at our disposal, including Quill magazine, to share those ideas with the rest of us. Right now, we need all the help we can get.
Irwin Gratz is the local host for “Morning Edition” on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.