interesting debate on transparency and journalism

Two weeks ago, Mayhill Fowler, who had gained access to a fundraising speech by Barack Obama because she had previously donated to his campaign, rocked Obama’s campaign by posting audio of his controversial speech about blue collar Pennsylvanians.

Fowler’s recording captured Obama as he "described blue collar Pennsylvanians with a series of what in the eyes of Californians might be considered pure negatives: guns, clinging to religion, antipathy, xenophobia."

Fowler was, it transpires, not just an Obama supporter but was also one of the bloggers following the primaries for the Huffington Post sponsored citizen journalism project, Off the Bus, stirring much debate within journalism about whether some things can and should be off the record, and raising questions about transparency.

In response to this debate, the Guardian organised a debate between Jeff Jarvis, a leading proponent of citizen journalism and journalistic transparency, and Michael Tomasky, the Guardian’s America editor. I  highly recommend reading the whole debate on Comment is Free but, if short of time, I’ve excerpted a few of the bits I particularly enjoyed below:

Jarvis thinks we should be concerned about the effect that giving and receiving access can have on journalism:

"I believe the rules you long to carry into the new world are inherently corrupting for journalism: We journalists have long traded in the currencies of access and exclusivity with the powerful. But the price we pay is complicity in a system of secrecy. That’s what off-the-record talks and unnamed sources add up to: secrets."

Tomasky argues that, sometimes, keeping things off the recorded and sources anonymous actually gives journalists greater, less inhibited access to stories. And he’s not convinced that having legions of people recording and publishing the news is inherently better than the existing model:

"But I admit that I’m a little less persuaded that it’s such a great and necessary thing that we know every single word public people utter. People say dumb things and things they don’t really mean. They misspeak. Whether constant recording of such missteps, and the inevitable intense fixation on them, will over time serve the public interest and help voters make more "informed" decisions is not yet settled in my view. That it will lead to more "gotcha!" moments on the campaign trail as candidates are caught saying naughty things isn’t a particularly stellar claim to make for the blogosphere, which actually does far more important work in the areas of media-monitoring and community-building. "

But Tomasky isn’t an old school "mainstream media vs the bloggers" – he sees real value in what bloggers do:

"What I like about the blogosphere is that, at its best, it elevates the debate. Mainstream journalists would think I’m out of my mind to say that, but it’s true – there are, for example, all manner of policy experts with blogs who shed real light on substantive questions, or bloggers with the intellectual chops to make really interesting and important observations about something happening in the news."

Jarvis’ main argument seems to be that anyone who observes and tells a story can, if they remain transparent about any potential sources of bias within their report, make a positive impact – with the results of their efforts becoming "one more ingredient in what it turning into a bigger and bigger pot of journalism stew." For Jarvis, it’s not important who or where the story comes from so long as the highest amount of transparency is evident in it’s presentation.

For Tomasky, the fact that Folwer got in the door because she had made a campaign donation and then, once there, began acting as a journalist is problematic. There is, he argues, a difference between being a witness and being a journalist. He doesn’t, however, explain exactly what he thins that difference is.

Both Jarvis and Tomasky agree that transparency about any possible source of bias, and of how access to a story or it’s actors has been gained, is essential to the validity of the final product. Whether we call that product "journalism" or "someone’s account", the crux of disagreement between Jarvis and Tomasky is, to me, entirely academic.


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