Questioning media transparency

Journalists often call for more openness and transparency in government. But a new study from the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland points a finger at major media outlets for not being open about themselves. "Do as I say, not as I do" often seems to be their motto.

The report, "Openness & Accountability: A Study of Transparency in Global Media Outlets", looked at 25 of the world's top news sites to see which ones publicly correct their errors, are open about who owns them, post their staff and reporting policies, and welcome reader comments and criticism.

MercatorNet interviewed the ICMPA's research director, Jad Melki, about the findings.


MercatorNet: News outlets constantly call for transparency in government and business. You say that often they aren't very transparent themselves.

Melki: Yes, news media often criticise government and business for their lack of transparency and end up making the same mistake. Transparency would not have been so urgent for news media had they not been businesses themselves -- and in some countries they are even extensions to government, if not a part of it.

In fact, today most media institutions are part of huge global or multi-national corporations that are engaged in many other non-media industries. The problem is that businesses and government have interests and agendas, and the news media, who often claim they are committed to their audiences, can be used to serve those interests through advertising or even propaganda. This is simply a matter of conflict of interest that is not declared to the audiences -- and they owe it to them.

Without transparency in ownership information, unsuspecting audiences are kept in the dark and even misguided into believing information that might otherwise clearly be linked to underlying interests of the owners.

MercatorNet: You place a lot of emphasis on transparency about ownership, reporting policies, staff policies. Why are these so important? Don't they create a bureaucratic nightmare for the free-wheeling world of journalism?

Melki: It is important for a reader to know as much as possible about the nature of the relationship between the reporter, for instance, and the person she is reporting about. If a news media institution allows its reporters to fly free in a politician or businessman’s private jet or accept expensive gifts or even invitations to a lavish resort, the audiences have a right to know and the media have an obligation to disclose it.

And it doesn’t stop at gifts. The reporter should be frank and open about any political, business or even cultural or religious commitment that may influence his reporting or cloud his judgment.

As for reporting policies, this is a staple of the journalism profession. Today, in a world of blogs and instant and virtually unlimited information, some of the few things that differentiate a journalist -- including blogger-journalists -- from a non-journalist is the credibility and commitment to ethical and professional standards.

Without that, a blogger is just another guy with access to a blog who might as well be dreaming up stories. Clearly, specifying and disclosing reporting policies is not only a matter of obligation to the audiences, but also something that will increase credibility—whether you are a solo-journalist or blogger or a global news media operation.

MercatorNet: You found that many websites still try to sweep their errors under the rug? Can they get away with it nowadays?

Melki: Some of them will get away with it, but only for a short time. With the spread of media watchdogs and vigilante bloggers, it’s only a matter of time before they are exposed, and our study did partly expose some media outlets -- in the hope that they will improve their practices in the future.

MercatorNet: Who were the most transparent in your survey? Do they have anything in common?

Melki: Topping the list of transparent media in our study was The Guardian, in the UK, followed by the New York Times, BBC News, CBS News, the Christian Science Monitor and National Public Radio. All these news media were ranked as excellent.

One of the striking similarity between them is they almost all scored high on reporting policies and ownership information. Most of them also were readily willing to show corrections and admit mistakes. Most importantly, those institutions put the effort to make access to transparency information simple and easy. Other outlets did disclose most of the information needed, but it was difficult and time consuming to find and access that information.

MercatorNet: You found that Time magazine, Al Jazeera (English), CNN and the Economist were amongst the least transparent. But these are highly professional organisations. Surely they should realise the need for transparency in the modern world. What accounts for this? Smugness? Inflexibility?

Melki: I cannot answer to why these outlets did not see it important to publish information that would make them more credible and transparent. That’s something only they know.

But I have to note that the Economist, which is an excellent news magazine, was at a disadvantage in our study. Their long-standing policy of not disclosing reporters’ names did hurt their score in the staff policies and interactivity categories. They had a perfect score on ownership, but did not do well on corrections and reporting policies, which they could have improved.

MercatorNet: Nearly all media websites offer opportunities to comment and respond to blogs. Do old-fashioned letters to the editor still have a role?

Melki: The letters to the editor tradition has been around for decades, and I think both the media and the readers are not yet ready to give it up. Only time can tell if blogs will replace them -- I doubt it. I think the letter to the editor tradition will evolve rather than disappear.

Still, we need to distinguish between blogs and letters to the editor. Although it would be naïve to think that editors read all the letters sent to them, most have a system of sorting through them -- or having others do that -- and then publishing what they see as the most relevant.

That is not true for blogs, which often don’t go through the traditional journalistic filters and their sheer number can be often overwhelming, to both readers and journalists. This is not to say that one is better than the other, but each has its own purpose and place.

MercatorNet: How about the personal prejudices and background of individual journalists? Should a political reporter disclose that he used to work for a politician? How much should be required of them?

Melki: Personally, I think every journalist should be open and honest about her potential prejudices and biases. This matter, however, is partly tied to a journalist’s specific reporting beat. For instance, wouldn’t you want to know if a reporter covering the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is connected to an organisation actively supporting one side or the other? Or what about a White House correspondent doubling as a speech writer or media adviser for a Republican senator or even a member of the administration?

MercatorNet: The New York Times has often come under fire over the past few years for arrogantly ignoring its mistakes. But you gave it a very high rating. What has it done to mend its ways?

Melki: Several news media we studied had problems and even scandals in the recent past. CBS, for example, made enormous progress towards becoming a highly transparent news institution. In fact, CBS’s separate section called "Public Eye" is a model for media outlets, especially in the new media world. We did not base our study on a media outlet’s past activities or history and focused on what they are doing today.

Jad Melki is research director at the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland. He has been a broadcast and on-line journalist for over 10 years working with American and Arab media.


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