From Nieman Reports | Can “Extreme Transparency” Fight Fake News and Create More Trust With Readers?


The following story originally appeared on Nieman Reports' website

Frontline executive producer Raney Aronson-Rath was in her office late last summer when special projects editor Philip Bennett walked in. He’d just been watching the raw footage from Frontline’s upcoming documentary, “Putin’s Revenge,” a two-part program about Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election. The interviews were amazing, he said. What if they put them online?

All of them.

“We’d been talking for a long time about what we could do at Frontline to really put a stake in the ground, that we are committed to transparency,” Aronson-Rath says. “A lightbulb went on, that this is the one we should go big on.”

The production team swung into action. At the same time editors and interns were working to produce the program to air that fall, behind the scenes they were also preparing 70 hours’ worth of interviews to post on the web. They fact-checked each, and vetted them with lawyers with the same care they did for the documentary itself.

But Aronson-Rath and her team didn’t want to just dump 56 interviews for audiences to sift through on their own. They used open-source software Bennett had helped create to make the films searchable by text, so viewers could easily find footage on specific subjects. They could even splice out a section and share it on social media. The result is both an exhaustive look at the issue of Russian hacking and an unparalleled look behind-the-scenes at the reporting process. In four months, the videos had more than 300,000 views, with 40 percent of web traffic referred by social media. What’s more, visitors spent twice as long with the interviews—an average of 28 minutes, much longer even than Aronson-Rath and Bennett anticipated—as the average visitor to the Frontline site. “Things that I myself wouldn’t have considered as part of the story now have relevance. It gives me a moment for pause. I am now watching from an expanded viewpoint and it’s interesting to see what is corroborated through other sources and what is not,” one viewer commented.

The Transparency Project, as Frontline is calling the effort, is one of a number of new attempts by media to open up the process they use to create their journalism to engender more trust with audiences. In a January Gallup/Knight Foundation poll of more than 19,000 Americans, respondents ranked their trust of media at only 37 out of 100. Just 50 percent of respondents said they had enough information to sort out facts in the face of media bias, down from 66 percent in 1984. Among Republicans, that number was even lower, only 31 percent.

Frontline has long been putting the complete transcripts of its interviews online—but putting the searchable videos online is a dramatic expansion of that proposition, laying bare the process of making documentaries, warts and all. “You see the real deal, people swiping their face, laughing, looking nervous,” Aronson-Rath says.

In many ways, the new push for transparency is a response to the current media environment of “fake news”—both the dissemination of actual false stories online and through social media, and the cries from the current administration that stories it doesn’t like are “fake.” As more and more Americans get their news through social media, content gets divorced from context that allows readers to decide whether a story is trustworthy. 

“People are getting their news through every possible medium and on every possible device,” says Melody Kramer, senior audience development manager at the Wikimedia Foundation and columnist for the Poynter Institute. “It’s a challenge to figure out the veracity of the information, where it came from, what the point of view is, or how it was put together.” That creates more of an imperative for news organizations to pull back the curtain to explain to readers how they report and write stories. “It becomes incumbent upon organizations—that are trying to improve our lower-d democracy—to open up a window into how they do the work they do.”

At the same time, transparency can serve a defensive function, insulating the media from attacks of political bias or unfairness. As far back as 2009, Harvard technologist David Weinberger declared that “transparency is the new objectivity,” making a writer more credible in the eyes of readers not through adherence to a supposed standard of impartiality, but by making clear the “sources and values that brought her to that position.”

Among those organizations leading the current charge to increase transparency is the  American Press Institute (API), which in 2014 produced a report entitled “Build Credibility Through Transparency.” The report advocated for publications to “show their work” by being clearer about their sources and correcting mistakes. In the run-up to the 2016 election, API consulted with news organizations about how to better disclose sources, using PolitiFact as a model. But it was unprepared for the level of hostility toward media and the allegations of bias and “fake news.”

“That’s when we started seeing a problem with misinformation, of which ‘fake news’ is part of that universe,” says Jane Elizabeth, accountability program director, who was surprised by the lack of media literacy among audiences and their willingness to believe outlandish stories with little sourcing, such as the debunked Pizzagate conspiracy theory. “Readers were confused and unable to tell the difference between misinformation, disinformation, and ‘fake news,’” Elizabeth says.

She places most of the blame on the current administration for deliberately sowing that confusion. “Trump’s candidacy had everything to do with this,” she says. “It was the type of campaign we had never dealt with before.” At the same time, she faults the media for not opening its doors to show the level of editorial care and vetting that goes into the news. “People think anyone can write something and press a button and it appears online.”

The first step toward transparency, she says, is to listen to readers about what they don’t know—and what they want to know—about how news is gathered, verified, and reported. “Otherwise, you are just divulging the wrong things.” Some things that might seem obvious to journalists, such as the ethics of using an anonymous source, may be opaque to readers and sow confusion and distrust.

API is not the only organization working with publications to improve transparency. Transparency advocate Josh Stearns of the Democracy Fund has spent the last two years working with newsrooms across New Jersey on how to better engage with readers and open up their reporting to scrutiny. While such initiatives can be time- and resource-intensive, he says, they can also help bolster revenue by explaining the value of rigorous reporting.

“Helping people understand the labor that goes into reporting, is a powerful way to build a relationship with the reader that will cause them to want to support it,” Stearns says. Such support can go beyond merely financial. “If we want the public to stand up for our rights for FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests, or when local mayors want to block us, then we want to have the public’s back and we want them to have ours.”

Other active transparency initiatives include the Trusting News project run by Joy Mayer and supported by the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, which has surveyed thousands of journalists and readers and is working with 14 newsrooms on experiments to engage more authentically with readers; and the newly launched News Co/Lab, funded mainly by the Facebook Journalism Project and run by veteran journalist Dan Gillmor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, which is partnering with the McClatchy newspaper group.

One of the most ambitious efforts to improve media transparency is the Trust Project, an initiative of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Led by journalist Sally Lehrman, the project worked with newsroom leaders from 75 publications to develop a common set of standards for transparency it calls “trust indicators.” In November, about 10 publications began rolling out the indicators worldwide, including The Economist, Mic, and The Washington Post. Significantly, the project has gotten social media sites and search engines including Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Bing on board as partners; the sites have agreed to start using the indicators in their feeds to give users a measure of the trustworthiness of articles.

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