Transparent Journalism

It’s common practice for journalists to disclose conflicts of interest such as “the author owns shares in Amazon” or “the newspaper is owned by Jeff Bezos”.

It’s also standard for opinion writers to explain their personal background or area of expertise, so that readers can assess the credibility of their proposals.

But there is another type of transparency I would like to see applied to regular news stories: transparency about the amount of effort that was put into research and seeking other points of view. Put another way, I want to know to what extent the story is based on a press release that only reflects one organization’s narrative.

For example, when a new computer chip for smart watches was recently announced, most news stories simply included a selection of talking points from the press release, focusing on improvements in battery life. However, one journalist did more of an investigation and discovered a relevant twist: the new chip uses 5-year-old fabrication technology and its speed has not improved in several years. The new chip merely has the ability to slow down even more to save energy. Meanwhile, a competitor’s chip has gotten 3x faster in the past two years alone without impacting battery life.

After reading the investigative article, I felt misled by earlier coverage. The takeaway from the press-release-based articles was: “New chip has better battery life.” The takeaway from the investigation was quite different: “New chip falls even further behind the competition despite battery life improvements.”

My goal here is not to scold journalists for failing to uncover all relevant details. After all, investigative journalism is expensive and time consuming and there is pressure to produce content as quickly and cheaply as possible. Instead, what I’m requesting is more transparency about the extent to which a given story has been researched — and thus, the likelihood that it may be missing relevant details and alternate points of view.

Providing a list of sources would be a helpful step. A list such as the following would provide an indication that the story is essentially a press release and thus likely to be one-sided:

  • Qualcomm press release (Sep 10, 2018)
  • Jim Berger, Qualcomm Public Relations

Additional sources and research would indicate deeper investigation:

  • Sharon Rutledge, chip design lecturer, Columbia University
  • Anonymous industry insider (based in Shenzhen)
  • 4 hours, independent lab testing
  • 2 hours, independent research on competing products

Investigative pieces often emphasize the substantial effort that has been undertaken to uncover and validate relevant information. I can imagine why news organizations may be hesitant to emphasize a lack of research in some stories. But ultimately, providing this information would make a news outlet more trustworthy to me — while still allowing journalists flexibility to balance the relative priorities of speed, cost, and depth.

Contextual Journalism

If journalists want to help us understand the world, they need to provide some context.

For example, an article about Brexit politics includes the sentence: “Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrat party and an arch opponent of Brexit, [criticized] the announcements and their timing.”

Since many readers don’t know who Vince Cable is, the information about his position and views are necessary to help make sense of the quote. Without it, for most readers the sentence would translate to: “Someone criticized the announcements and their timing.” Which of course is not particularly useful or interesting.

However, news reports rarely provide this type of context for numbers. For example, many recent stories cover the news that “the president is demanding $5 billion in funding for a border wall” but very few of them include the context needed to understand that number. Is $5 billion a lot or a little in this scenario? For most readers, the sentence may as well be: “The president is demanding a number of dollars.”

For the same reason audiences need context for people and places, we need context for numbers. Here’s an attempt at the version I would like to see: “The president demanded $5 billion in funding for a border wall — triple the amount spent in 2018 on border walls and a 16% increase in overall federal spending on immigration and border security.”

I’m not asking for full-on data journalism here — just a small bit of additional information to put things in context. One or two points of comparison with basic arithmetic would be a major step forward.

I created a few more examples:

“The terrorist attacks of 9/11 killed 2996 people — comprising about one third of US deaths on that day and 2% of all mortal injuries that year. (By comparison, 42,443 US residents died in 2001 in car accidents.)” [Data from CDC]

“Researchers estimate that US involvement in the war in Iraq cost $750 billion from 2003-2010, or 3% of the federal budget during those years. (This was 200 times the amount spent on traffic safety.)”

In these examples, I tried to provide some balance by including both a larger and smaller point of reference. I also did my best to choose comparisons that most people would agree are relevant (perhaps slightly less so in the parentheticals). Of course, judgement and subjectivity is involved in choosing which comparisons to include — just like any other aspect of journalism, which always involves choices about which stories to report and which facts to highlight.

I had to spend significant time searching through documents to find the data I wanted for my comparisons — enough work to reinforce the idea that it’s unreasonable to expect casual news audiences to do this spontaneously, but not so difficult that it seems to present a major barrier to a professional newsroom. Much of what’s needed is basic government data on population statistics, economics, health, spending, etc., which can be reused across many stories. And experts already being interviewed for a story may know which metrics would provide useful context in their field.

Perhaps there’s resistance because context can make a story less sensational. “$5 billion” sounds more impressive than “a fraction of a percent of the federal budget”. But of course that’s part of why I want contextual journalism in the first place — I’m tired of hype. I’m looking for an accurate picture of what’s happening in the world.

Compassionate Journalism

“When we settle our attention on other people’s feelings and needs, we experience our common humanity. … I’ve learned that I enjoy human beings more if I [focus] on what’s going on in their hearts and [don’t get] caught up with the stuff in their heads.”

-Marshall Rosenberg (Nonviolent Communication, p.151)

Lately I’ve been wondering what it would look like to create a news source based on the practices of compassionate communication. What would it be like to report the news in a way that focuses attention on people’s feelings and needs rather than their judgements and opinions?

As an experiment, I started re-writing an existing news article and quickly realized that the effort would require going back to the source and performing new interviews — asking a different set of questions to try to uncover what the various parties were feeling and needing.

So for the next experiment, I took one of Marshall Rosenberg’s dialogues as the basis for a hypothetical news segment. Here is part of the interview:

Palestinian crowd: “Murderer! Assassin! Child-killer!”

American interviewer: “Are you angry because you would like my government to use its resources differently?”

Palestinian man: “Damn right I’m angry! You think we need tear gas? We need sewers, not your tear gas! We need housing! We need to have our own country!”

Interviewer: “So you’re furious and would appreciate some support in improving your living conditions and gaining political independence?”

Man: “Do you know what it’s like to live here for twenty-seven years the way I have with my family—children and all? Have you got the faintest idea what that’s been like for us?”

Interviewer: “Sounds like you’re feeling very desperate and you’re wondering whether I or anybody else can really understand what it’s like to be living under these conditions. Am I hearing you right?”

Man: “You want to understand? Tell me, do you have children? Do they go to school? Do they have playgrounds? My son is sick! He plays in open sewage! His classroom has no books! Have you seen a school that has no books?”

Interviewer: “I hear how painful it is for you to raise your children here; you want what all parents want for their children—a good education, opportunity to play and grow in a healthy environment…”

Man: “That’s right, the basics! Human rights—isn’t that what you Americans call it? …”

How might a journalist report on her experience in Palestine?

  • Palestinians View American Involvement as Child Murder
  • Palestinians Furious Over American Participation In Conflict
  • Palestinians Request Desperately Needed Supplies and Infrastructure

All of these versions are equally true — they just emphasize different aspects of the truth. The first reports on what people are thinking; the second reveals what people are feeling; and the third focuses on what people are needing and requesting.

I can feel the wide disparity in my own reactions to these headlines. The first puts me on the defensive (as an American), with tightening muscles and a desire to hurl my own accusations. The second feels more neutral; a description of an emotion. And reading the third, I soften as I imagine the difficult situation.

The news is not simply an impartial collection of facts. It reflects a series of choices about which facts are included and how they are framed. Compassionate communication demonstrates how to look for shared human experience rather than judgements and blame. It seems possible to me that by focusing on the human needs driving current events, compassionate journalism could actively promote empathy toward a wide range of people and situations.

The Cynic

“The [person] who looks least engaged may be the most committed member of the group. A cynic, after all, is a passionate person who does not want to be disappointed again.”

-Benjamin Zander, The Art of Possibility (p.39)


“People are used to hearing blame. Sometimes they agree with it and hate themselves—which doesn’t stop them from behaving the same way—and sometimes they hate us for calling them racists or whatever—which also doesn’t stop their behavior.”

-Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication (p.152)

The paradox of loneliness

“One of the tragic ironies of modern life is that so many people feel isolated from each other by the very feelings they have in common.”

-Sir Ken Robinson
(as quoted in Brené Brown, Rising Strong)

Doing our best

“[I’ve found that] my life is better when I assume [that] people are doing the best they can with the tools they have. … It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is, and not what should or could be.”

-Brené Brown (Rising Strong p. 108-113,
quote attributed to her husband Steve)

The myth of closure

“There is no such thing as closure. … Once you’ve become attached to somebody, love them, care about them — when they’re lost, you still care about them. … I don’t like to use the word ‘acceptance’, but I think we can try to be comfortable with what we cannot solve.”

-Pauline Boss (via On Being)

Compassionate thinking

“While studying the factors that affect our ability to stay compassionate, I was struck by the crucial role of language and our use of words. [However], Nonviolent or Compassionate Communication (NVC) is more than a process or a language. On a deeper level, it is an ongoing reminder to keep our attention focused on a place where we are more likely to get what we are seeking…. The essence of NVC is in our consciousness of the four components, not in the actual words that are exchanged.”

-Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication (p. 2-8)
(italics mine)