Transparency as a filter for news media consumers

In his JohoTheBlog post “Transparency is the new objectivity,” David Weinberger accurately points out some obvious, while sometimes hidden, accusations about “objective journalism.” For most active and critical media consumers, any publication’s claim that they are completely objective is laughable. But we are only now nearing the end of news outlets using this claim as their selling point.

Weinberger introduces his argument by saying that “transparency is now fulfilling some of objectivity’s old role in the ecology of knowledge,” and in the economics of newsrooms. Outlets used to, and sometimes still do, sell themselves on a claim of being objective—but one technological development has become a major obstacle in this business plan.

The internet has changed the media landscape in more ways than providing forums, changing advertising strategy, and spreading social media. It has made the media consumer into the media maker—and by doing so, it has completely unveiled how the sausage is made in the newsroom.

With the internet’s vast wealth of knowledge, consumers now have full first-hand experience and plenty of behind-the-scenes knowledge of what the process of making media is like. This has shattered the claim that news outlets have relied on to give them a competitive edge, and to appeal to ethos. But another claim has replaced it

Because consumers now have a wealth of knowledge about the inner workings of a newsroom, they are more likely to know when outlets are lying. Now, instead of attracting consumers by claiming objectivity, newsrooms essentially say the following to their consumers:

“We both know that our coverage will not be completely objective, and it will have some sort of slant. But, we’ll promise to tell you what we’re doing every step of the way—and because of that, you can trust us more than other outlets.”

This translates both to the journalistic process and to things like disclosing advertisers and funders—a strategy that many independent outlets implement.

I personally think that this kind of transparency is essential for newsrooms, and is not a negative development in the field of journalism.

But it does change, on a grander scale, the role of the media consumer: it makes them more active in what they’re reading, and gives them implicit agency. As Weinberger says, “Anyone who claims objectivity should be willing to back that assertion up by letting us look at sources, disagreements, and the personal assumptions and values supposedly bracketed out of the report.”

It is now the media consumers’ job to check on this transparency, and back up what they’re reading. But this is better than the other, non-transparent, alternative. And on the journalist's side, this is a blessing, and a pathway to a more reliable news media landscape—but journalists must overcome this default-state of having bias by proving to their readers that they have the drive and sense of ethics to ask all of the sides of the story for their input.