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.

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