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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Transparency in journalism

From Jonathan Tobin in Commentary:
There was a time not so very long ago when blogging and journalism were two completely different things. Many, if not most bloggers did not publish under their own names and mainstream journalists sniffed their disapproval. But as most journalists now write as much if not far more for the Internet than print, the idea that blogging is somehow antithetical to journalism is a distinctly antique notion.

It is in this context of a journalistic world in which constant online news updates and accompanying commentary is a given that we must view the revelation this weekend that a popular Middle East blog was a hoax. The blog, which went under the name “Gay Girl in Damascus,” purported to be the musings of a Syrian-American lesbian who was a critic of the Assad regime. Interest in the blog went up in recent months as unrest in Syria made the commentary from this seemingly fearless writer all the more fascinating.

But, as we learned this weekend, it was all a hoax. The “gay girl” turned out to be one Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old American graduate student living in Scotland who was known in Palestinian and anti-Israel activist circles. ....

This incident makes it all the more important for consumers of news and opinion on the web to know more about the sites they are reading. In the end, there is no substitute for transparency. Blogs and websites that operate without it are a standing invitation to fraud of one sort or another.
While this is true, Tobin is implying that somehow news sites are more transparent, and therefore more reliable, in their reporting than blogs are. While there are some checks and balances in the news media that do not exist in cyberspace, this is not the same thing as transparency.

One only has to go back a month to see The New York Times state confidently that Khaled Meshal of Hamas accepts a two state solution. And he said no such thing.

This was indeed a failing of the New York Times' fact checking, but it was also one out of thousands of examples of a lack of journalistic transparency. In fact, most newspapers online do not contain links to external sources in their stories where an interested reader can check out information first hand.

This topic strikes close to home for me. My blog is anonymous. Not only that, but my blog is biased. I am a Zionist and I am not going to pretend otherwise. So how can I convince anyone to listen to me?

The answer is transparency. I try to make sure that when I write something I will link back to the original source, when possible. I encourage and expect my readers to check my sources and call me on it if I am wrong.

This applies to polls, government reports, transcripts of important speeches, Arabic newspapers, historical documents, even public domain books. If I can find an original source, I will link back.

When my team and I went painstakingly through Arabic media to determine which "civilians" in Gaza were in fact terrorists, I made sure that every discussion on the topic was in the comments system so that anyone could double-check our work. (Unfortunately, the old comment system is no longer here.)

Newspaper websites usually do not do this. If they quote a poll or a report or a speech, they will not link back to the source unless it is on their own site.

Since newspapers occasionally interview people, to my mind their responsibility is to make the entire raw interview available online so readers can make up their own minds as to the context of the statements that the news media choose to highlight. What exactly did Meshal say to Bronner? Exactly at what point did he depart from Meshal's words and into his own interpretation of what he said? Was there a mistranslation or just sloppy reporting? Did Bronner ask leading questions to get the answers he wanted? All of this is important information.

Transparency would allow good reporters - and bloggers -  to be valued, and sloppy ones to be exposed.

So this is not a blog vs. newspaper issue. It is simply an issue of how transparent the news media is in reporting its stories. It is making clear to the world what the raw facts are and what the interpretations and assumptions behind them are. It would expose the memes that lazy journalists use (hawkish Likud, moderate Abbas.)

And it is not likely that we will see the news media become truly transparent any time soon. They consciously nurture the myth that they are somehow special, that their opinions are more informed than those of non-journalists, that they do not suffer from bias. Opening up their methodology is something that many reporters will fight hard against, because deep down they know when they take shortcuts and make assumptions in their stories.

But transparency is the only way to know that what you are reading is the truth.

(By the way, it wouldn't be such a bad idea if professional journalists admitted where they found their stories to begin with. Youknow, hat tips.  It would be nice to see how much of their work is being done by us bloggers.)