Transparency and the Media – a behind-the-scenes glimpse into why a story changes

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Transparency is a term oft-used in the web 2.0 context. Typically, however, it applies to the application of social media by consumers/citizens to impose a previously-unattainable level of transparency on corporate behaviour. Examples are legion – Sleeping Comcast Technicians, battlin’ AOL client service reps, breakable bike locks, leaking toilets on aircraft, astro-turfing – and many more (just check out the Consumerist for the latest juice).

But from the perspective of crisis and issues management, mainstream media are also facing increasing scrutiny (as they should) from the ranks of citizen journalists. Ever since the Dan Rather hullabaloo over reporting of George W. Bush’s war record, otherwise known as Memogate or Rathergate, the impact of bloggers as media watchdogs has only intensified. 

The implications are significant and should continue to be discussed. A recent email exchange purported to be between an activist and a BBC reporter over perceived ”inaccuracies” in a story on climate change offers a fascinating insight into today’s news environment, and raises some interesting questions:

Regardless if the changes made the story more accurate or, in the words of one blogger, ”(morphed) the article’s tenor from dialogue to lecture with a minimum of extorted word processing” (and that’s not the point of this post), should the reporter – for the sake of transparency - have made the changes as a discrete ”update” to the original with an adjusted timestamp, or was he within his rights to make the changes into the existing story without reflecting the fact that the original story had in fact been altered?

Secondly, does this not speak to the importance of including a comments section (as many media outlets now do) on all stories or features in order to allow interested parties to address perceived inaccuracies without injecting their potential bias into the actual story. A less optimal solution, perhaps, but could the journalist not simply have continued the story based on the email exchange that ensued?

In a crisis environment, where media are already under incredible pressure and where the need to be first often overrides the need to be accurate, incidents such as this (assuming that this is an accurate reflection of a real exchange – and I tend to believe it is) are worth considering. From this writer’s perspective, it compromises the trust that many place in the mainstream media to be as accurate and unbiased as possible, potentially leading those audiences to seek information elsewhere. At the same time, it acknowledges the need to work closely with media to ensure that what you provide in times of crisis go beyond soundbites and are substantiated by credible information and defensible proof points (since, clearly there will be pressure on the journalist from all fronts to “get it right”). And it further reinforces the importance of relying on your own channels to communicate versus relying solely on a “filtered” media. 

3 Comments
11

Apr
2008

Mariana Sarceda

I totally agree with your post. Hat off!!!

16

Apr
2008

Mariana Sarceda

Brendan . . . I am still not sure of your point of view on the question you raise: "should the reporter – for the sake of transparency – have made the changes as a discrete "update" to the original with an adjusted timestamp, or was he within his rights to make the changes into the existing story without reflecting the fact that the original story had in fact been altered?"

This affects any blogger who posts something then quickly realizes an error was made. Should you ‘track’ the change or simply edit tom make the post more accurate. Your view?

16

Apr
2008

Brendan Hodgson

Hey Boyd, my view is that, like any blog, if it is a substantive re-write of text that changes the context, adds new information, or deletes information, then those changes and updates should be tracked. I do not believe that it is the right of any media to go back and make changes (beyond correcting) grammatical or spelling errors, without indicating that a change was made. It’s certainly an interesting issue.

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