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The best ways for publishers to build credibility through transparency

As so much in the world of news and information changes, the fundamental bond of trust between journalists and the communities they serve is one of the few things that doesn’t. In fact, its importance has grown.

One of the most important ways journalists and news organizations earn the trust of the public trust is by being transparent about who we are and the work we do.

Every newsroom, and basically also every single story must show why they deserve more trust than dozens or even hundreds of others on the same topic.

We attribute information to the source to show provenance. We have bylines and credits to provide a sense of ownership and accountability. We offer opportunities for people to respond to what they read, hear and see. We invite the public to report errors and request corrections, and we publicly admit our errors.

Today, journalists are rapidly adapting and enhancing these basic frameworks for transparency and accountability, both to suit digital platforms — and for a world of abundant sources of information.

This paper is part of the American Press Institute’s ongoing series of Strategy Studies, deep examinations of how publishers can build new revenue models and grow audiences. The studies draw insights from multiple examples, focusing less on the examples themselves and more on the lessons and actionable insights for others to borrow. They are designed to be pragmatic and realistic, noting potential obstacles and emphasizing the how-to elements.

For this Strategy Study we talked with experts and newsroom leaders, and reviewed academic literature and research findings, to examine how practices related to transparency and credibility are evolving in five key areas:

  1. Show the reporting and sources that support your work
  2. Collaborate with the audience
  3. Curate and attribute information responsibly
  4. Offer disclosures and statements of values
  5. Correct website and social media errors effectively

What is transparency, really?

Transparency has emerged as one of the most-discussed and evangelized aspects of practicing ethical journalism in the networked age.

As traditional notions of journalistic objectivity are challenged and also criticized, transparency has emerged as an ideal that newsrooms and individual journalists strive for. But it can also be overhyped and offered as a panacea.

If journalists are truth seekers, it must follow that they be honest and truthful with their audiences, too.

“Transparency is more than a buzzword,” wrote journalism professor and ethicist Stephen Ward in an article, “Why Hyping Transparency Distorts Journalism Ethics.” “Too often it is a magical idea — a norm with seemingly magical powers to restore democracy. It is a ‘god’ of institutional ethics.”

Rather than exploring abstract — or “magical” — notions of transparency, this study focuses on tangible actions and practices. For example, journalists can make a greater effort to link to original source material, to offer ways for the audience to participate in the newsgathering process, or to be responsive to requests for correction.

The digital environment provides journalists new and more effective ways to practice transparency. Well-established transparency practices can be updated and adapted to a multi-platform world, and new, digitally native ones can also be applied.

Transparency adds value to the work we do, but it’s also a fundamental part of how we do our work, according to Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in their book, “The Elements of Journalism.” (Rosenstiel is the executive director of the American Press Institute.)

“If journalists are truth seekers, it must follow that they be honest and truthful with their audiences, too — that they be truth presenters,” they wrote. “If nothing else, this responsibility requires that journalists be as open and honest with audiences as they can about what they know and what they don’t. How can you claim to be seeking the truth when you’re not truthful with the audience in the first place?”

Transparency also has other virtues, according to the authors. “It signals the journalist’s respect for the audience” and “… also helps establish that the journalist has a public interest motive, the key to credibility.”

It’s important to be realistic about the impact of transparency. It will not necessarily result in immediate changes in traffic, or engagement, though some initiatives will certainly have positive effects. It is not a cure-all, but it does have value.

Here’s how an editor at The Washington Post put it in an interview for a recently published academic paper, “Newsrooms and Transparency in the Digital Age”:

We are really aware that people have very high levels of suspicion about the media generally. Rightly or wrongly, the public does not trust us and so we have to make an effort to “show” readers that we are professional in the way we do our job … also there’s definitely the aspect of competition … what we are selling in effect is our credibility compared to say a blog or a smaller outlet and so being more forthcoming is one way of doing it.

In the same paper, an editor at the Los Angeles Times said that “transparency is telling people how we got the story … reporting why we included what we did. What was left out and why, who our sources are.”

Implementing processes, policies and tools that enhance accountability and credibility are not just good journalism — they can be a competitive advantage, a differentiator.

“[I]n the digital world, where information is infinite and infinitely replicable, being transparent about provenance and sourcing helps distinguish journalism from other content on the web,” wrote Martin Moore, the executive director of the Media Standards Trust, in a blog post that listed the arguments in favor of transparency.

Mathew Ingram, who covers the media for the website Gigaom and was formerly the first community editor of Canada’s Globe And Mail, has compared aspects of practicing transparency to a disaster preparedness plan.

“Its value only becomes obvious in extreme circumstances,” he said in an interview for this study. “… 99 percent of the of time no one will look, but then something does happen and they can go and look.”

Implementing processes, policies and tools that enhance accountability and credibility are not just good journalism — they can be a competitive advantage, a differentiator.

Transparency must therefore be linked with consistency: determine how you will practice transparency and the areas in which you will apply it — and then keep doing it. By making it a habit, it has more of an effect both internally and externally. And it provides the kind of worst-case scenario protection cited by Ingram.

In a 2009 paper, “Transparency in Journalism: Credibility and trustworthiness in the digital future,” Dr. Klaus Meier of Catholic University Eichstaett-Ingolstadt argued that “evidence of trustworthiness must be given repeatedly” in a competitive digital environment.

“Every newsroom, and basically also every single story must show why they deserve more trust than dozens or even hundreds of others on the same topic,” he wrote.

Kovach and Rosenstiel highlighted two key transparency questions journalists should ask themselves in the course of their work: “What does my audience need to know to evaluate this information for itself? And is there anything in our treatment of it that requires explanation?”

These go to the heart of transparency.

In the digital world, there is a third question to add: What elements of this story can I share that will help the audience contribute valuable information or perspective to improve the reporting?

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