Last week I was glad to see Arthur Brisbane, the New York Times’ public editor, call for the paper to post all its policies and standards for news out on its website where everyone can see them. I hope your first thought hearing this matches mine: “You mean they don’t already?”
Brisbane’s column only reminds us how stubbornly most news organizations still cling to their opacity. The Times is relatively forward-thinking about corrections policies, but for it, as for most of our news institutions, public accountability remains more of an aspiration than a way of life.
I agree with Jay Rosen that Brisbane’s suggestion, if implemented, would mark a “major step forward in transparency.” Still, my cheers for Brisbane’s column were muted a bit by its clumsy framing of the challenges the Times and its peers face as they set out to open themselves to public scrutiny.
Brisbane seems to be under the impression that posting a set of policies presents the Times with difficult technical challenges. In reality, the technical and design issues here are nonexistent — posting a bunch of static web pages shouldn’t take the Times staff more than a few days, if not hours. The problems, rather, are organizational: Most institutions are reluctant to expose their inner workings to sunlight. Newsrooms are no different — but they should be. They exist to inform the public and hold powerful people and institutions accountable. They should set an example for those they cover, not just to avoid hypocrisy but also to earn back some of the public trust they’ve lost.
Here is the heart of Brisbane’s proposal:
The Times should step out ahead of its industry peers by creating a reader-friendly portal to its policies on ethics, style and usage, blogging, anonymous sources, social networking and other subjects that readers and journalists care about. I envision a link on the left side of the NYTimes.com home page that would take you to a Journalism Policies page where you could locate topics using a search tool.
A link! A page! Topics that are searchable! There isn’t a content management system in use today that doesn’t make providing such material a snap. The Times probably employs several. Yet Brisbane goes on to assert that “building the portal would require considerable programming time.” Really, it should take zero programming time, a tiny bit of a designer’s time, and a modest amount of editorial time to prepare and organizes the policy pages. That’s it.
The real cost to the organization would lie in the long meetings where editors would have to hash out whether they can really commit, in public, to every avowal of each existing policy. Once you publish detailed policies, as Brisbane points out, you face inevitable “headaches” as the online public begins to compare the paper’s stated policies with its daily practices.
Well, get out the Tylenol. These are the very same headaches that good journalists visit every day on public officials, businesspeople, and everyone else they write about. Goose, meet gander.
By all means, let the Times and its competitors follow Brisbane’s suggestion. But his “policy portal” is a bare minimum, a catch-up-to-the-present move. It’s a small down-payment on the kind of real transparency that we have every right to expect newsrooms to epitomize. News providers should go way beyond spelling out their policies for the public; they should unveil as much of their actual practices and processes as they reasonably can.
One of the tenets of MediaBugs is that there’s value in providing a public, permanent space for discussion and debate about potential errors in news coverage — illuminating a process that has traditionally taken place in the dark. As Brisbane says, this sort of thing provides dividends in trust that journalists today desperately need. It also actively improves the coverage journalists can provide, which should be more than enough reason to do it.