Transparency, process and anatomy in the news business

February 8, 2018 11:00

I had a nice conversation over coffee recently with a former student of mine who graduated a couple of years ago. She’s enjoying her work as a television reporter in a mid-sized market. She asked me what I thought about the latest thing her station’s consultant had introduced: the “process approach” to reporting.
 
I asked her what that meant, and she explained that it involves sharing with viewers details of the work that went into a specific story – sources used, attempts made to contact others, digging done, etc.
 
Sounds like a great idea to me. It also sounds like something I wrote about 12 years ago, when I was a Poynter faculty member.
 
At the time, the term “transparency” was still somewhat new to me, at least as a journalistic value. I referred to a couple of examples. One was from the Los Angeles Times, about its investigation three years earlier of groping allegations against then-candidate for governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The report was controversial because of its publication right before California’s election. The editor who oversaw the project wished in retrospect that he had used an editor’s note to explain the newspaper’s process of decision-making.
 
Another example was from WDSU-TV in New Orleans, which had used unscientific online “polling” in producing local political debates. When it became apparent that campaigns were gaming the system, the station reported on its own processes and on the problems it had failed to foresee.
 
Those were big, unusual stories, improved  – or not – by the application of transparency. I compared the technique at the time to an antique clock with glass sides that’s been in my family for decades: “That's what works for me: the idea of revealing the mechanism within, whether it's about keeping time or making decisions. I still like watching the gears mesh, the parts operate and the process play out before my eyes. It helps me understand how the hands move. It tells me time is not standing still. It shows me the clock has not stopped.”
 
A dozen years later, I note the word “process” in that metaphor. I’m pleased it’s being applied these days to even routine reporting, at a time when journalists need more than ever to open up their inner workings in the interest of credibility.
 
I wrote in 2006 about “widespread public distrust of news media.” That was a full decade before a U.S. president labeled journalists “the enemy of the American people.” It’s easy now to get nostalgic for that earlier era, when it wasn’t quite so politically popular to trash journalism. 
 
But practices like “process reporting” encourage me. For example, telling an audience not just that you’ve “asked for a response” from the subject of a story, but how long ago you started seeking a response, and how many times you’ve tried – to me, that adds great credence. It says you didn’t work on a story for days or weeks but allow only minutes or hours for the formulation of a response. 
 
One of the most intriguing and admirable applications of “process reporting” was the “Anatomy of an Error KUSA’s Kyle Clark offered up late last year. He began by acknowledging something he got wrong in a relatively routine report, but on a subject so sensitive that the mistake was magnified: gun rights.
 
This was no routine correction consisting of a few on-camera lines ending with, “We regret the error.” “Anatomy” shone a light on the inaccuracy of Clark’s initial report, explained how it happened and set the record straight. The follow-up story was a full package, just under two minutes in length. That’s hardly long-form journalism, but it’s more than viewers are accustomed to getting when, on rare occasion, TV stations own up to their errors.
 
Committing to that kind of rather radical transparency – an entire piece about “process” – is commendable. Executing it effectively is harder than it might seem. Explaining how things actually work, not just how they are supposed to work, can seem self-absorbed, defensive, whiney or all of the above. And success is somewhat subjective. Clark’s “Anatomy” piece worked for me, but I recognize that I’m more sympathetic with journalists than the general public is these days.
 
Still, I believe that what I said about transparency 12 years ago applies to process reporting today: It isn’t as simple as it sounds, it feels funny at first and the skills involved improve only with practice.