Eleven years ago I published at my site, PressThink, an FAQ about The View from Nowhere. There I tried to explain what I meant in adapting that phrase to press criticism. This post is a companion to that one. But it starts from an opposite end. Not the view from nowhere but the voice of someone— disclosing a point of view.
To explain what I mean by that, I will use the transparency section of tech journalist Casey Newton’s newsletter. Disclosure: I have been talking with Casey about viewpoint transparency for some time. He told me that some of what I said influenced him. (Read about Casey and his move to one-person journalism in this New York Times report.)
“Here are some things I’ve come to believe about social networks and democracy since I started covering the topic,” he writes at the About page for his newsletter, Platformer. That is not the view from nowhere; it’s the voice of someone. A journalist who says he is not viewless.
Here are some things I’ve come to believe about my beat. By leveling with readers in this way, a “here’s where I’m coming from” journalist makes a different bid for trust than a statement like “…and that’s the way it is,” which was Walter Cronkite’s famous sign off in the 1960s. (And a very effective one, too. Cronkite was a broadly trusted figure.)
Neutral professionalism says: you can trust our report because we keep ourselves out of it.
Casey Newton’s Platformer says: You can trust my report because I put myself into it… and here’s who I am.
These are different systems for generating confidence in the bearer of news reports.
Explaining how he sees the world — the world of the giant tech companies — Newton shares some conclusions he’s arrived at. The lessons of his experience. (Or as some would call it: his bias.) Here are three of the eleven he lists:
We ought to put at least as much pressure on the government to make change as we do on tech companies. But tech companies are more responsive, and so they face more pressure.
Television news has proven corrosive to democracy in ways that are likely as or more important than any created by social networks.
Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have grown large enough that the platforms are essentially beyond the control of their executives. The companies are under the control of their executives. But executives are often months or years late to understanding the unintended consequences of the platforms, and they don’t always respond effectively even after they do understand the consequences.
Here’s where I’m coming from, as your journalist keeping watch on the tech platforms. Casey’s purpose here is not to parade his opinions but to disclose a perspective. Read my work through this lens, says he.
Now let’s shift from an individual journalist to a newsroom with a team of reporters. The investigative non-profit ProPublica says it practices a particular kind of journalism, the point of which is “to expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions.”
If the powerful cannot be held accountable, democracy becomes a joke. Abuses of the public trust are a special category of wrongs to be righted. In journalism the point of investigating is not just to document wrongdoing but to get results. That — in my paraphrase — is where ProPublica is coming from: “Using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing,” as they put it.
This is disclosure of intent. We don’t just publish the story. We keep the pressure on until something happens, “for as long as it takes to hold power to account,” as ProPublica says.
That’s different from saying: we report the news and keep you informed.
ProPublica doesn’t try to locate itself on the political map. It’s not with the reds or the blues. It doesn’t take positions on the issues of the day. But it is clearly anchored in the long history of progressive reform in the U.S., especially the chapter called Muckraking, of which investigative journalists Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, and the publisher S.S. McClure were early exemplars. From there — from that tradition, I mean — ProPublica is also coming.
When Casey Newton says, “Here are some things I’ve come to believe about social networks and democracy,” or when ProPublica talks of “using the power of investigative journalism to spur reform,” they are implicitly declining what I have long called the view from nowhere.
Their bid for trust is different. The most concise description of the difference is still David Weinberger’s crack, “Transparency is the new objectivity.” (2009.)
Instead of trying to persuade people that you are detached and viewless — but fair and informed! — you disclose what you think. Not everything you think, but the part that readers, viewers, and listeners should know about when they decide whether to trust your account of things.
Instead of “we have no agenda other than bringing you the news as fairly and accurately as possible…” which is one way to bid for the confidence of the news audience, you disclose your intent: To spur reform using the moral force of investigative journalism, for example. This is a kind of agenda. But it’s compatible with the principles of good journalism, and it tells people what to expect.
“Here’s where we’re coming from” statements will necessarily vary a lot. I don’t have a formula. The important thing is for journalists to make more of them, to get comfortable with the act, and to learn through experiment what forms of viewpoint disclosure will actually make a difference to users.
Here’s the Voice of San Diego, an investigative non-profit: “We pressure leaders to solve widely accepted problems and local challenges. To evaluate what those are, we offer this template of our values and concerns.” In other words: here’s where we’re coming from with our journalism. Voice of San Diego says it is for…
- Government transparency, open meetings and accountability.
- A well-informed, well-educated community ready to participate in civic affairs.
- Government agencies that are just, efficient and excellent.
- High quality education for all children.
- Quality housing that is affordable to all residents.
- World class infrastructure that supports free enterprise and job creation.
- A robust and inclusive arts and culture scene.
- A clean environment, healthy ecosystem
- Preparations for the long-term challenges of drought, energy supply and climate change.
By itself, this kind of statement does not change anything in journalism. One could say it’s just rhetoric. Only when it’s part of a larger shift toward the transparency system does “here’s where we’re coming from” start to signify.
Key practices in the transparency system for generating confidence in the bearer of news reports.
* Commit to transparency about ownership, business model, and major sources of funding.
* Maintain high standards of verification throughout the enterprise of publishing news and comment.
* Speak clearly about your priorities in news coverage— and when they change speak clearly about that.
* Share your reasoning when you make policy decisions like what to cover, and whom to ignore.
* Quick action when you screw up and need to correct or ammend your reporting.
* Active listening to good faith criticism and genuine audience feedback.
* “Show your work.” Meaning: explain how you did that story and came to the conclusions you did.
* “Don’t believe us? See for yourself.” Here’s the data. Here’s the documents. Here’s the full interview.
* And of course… “here’s where we’re coming from.”
When you put them all together they give form, task and purpose to “transparency is the new objectivity.”
In the years ahead, bidding for trust by means of viewpoint and agenda disclosure will, I think, become more common, especially in newsletter, niche, investigative, climate, and point-of-view journalism. Taking a neutral stance and asking to be trusted because you’re uncommited to everything except getting the story right, accurately and fairly— that will continue to characterize the work of the big national newsrooms and public broadcasters. As I have said, these are different systems.
Here’s Casey in his transparency voice again:
How do you see the world?
Like many people, my views about technology were reshaped by the events of 2016. Revelations that foreign actors had manipulated Facebook, Twitter, and other sites caused me to reevaluate my old, blinkered assumption that social networks were only harmless fun. Before 2016, my primary concern about Facebook was that the News Feed would crush most digital media. After 2016, my concern shifted from a business concern to a more patriotic one: are social networks undermining democracy?
And here are the editors of The Dispatch: “We don’t apologize for our conservatism. Some of the best journalism is done when the author is honest with readers about where he or she is coming from, and some of the very worst journalism hides behind a pretense of objectivity and the stolen authority that pretense provides.”
Time to wrap this up. About our little experiment, Casey Newton told me:
“Writing a ‘where I’m coming from statement’ was enormously useful to me as I started my newsletter, It forced me to articulate an editorial mission, my values, and my editorial process. I send it out to everyone who subscribes when they sign up, and many readers have told me that they trust me more because of it. I strongly encourage more journalists to write one of their own. The benefits are real!
I’m with Casey in encouraging journalists to write their own “here’s where I’m coming from” statement. It’s not a bio, or a résumé, or a simple description of your beat. When you disclose where you’re coming from, you are giving readers, viewers, and listeners the tools they need to assess your work. They can apply any discount rate they want. And if any of them say to you, in that slightly threatening voice, “Oh, yeah? What’s your agenda?” now you have a ready answer. Just send them the link.
Notes and updates
1. My graduate students at NYU are collecting good examples of “coming from” statements, and exceptional transparency practices in journalism. Here’s their site. You can submit samples for them to consider here.
2. For an excellent book-length treatment of the problems discussed in this post see The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity by the journalist Lewis Raven Wallace.
3. Trusting News, led by Joy Mayer, is a research project that works on these issues with news organizations. Thanks to Joy for her help with this post. Another key contributor in this topic area is The Trust Project, led by Sally Lehrman. Its mission is to strengthen public confidence in the news through accountability and transparency.
5. I like to test my ideas under real world conditions. And so over the next few months, I will be working as a consultant to Courier Newsroom, a company with transparency problems in its past that has re-organized and committed itself to doing better. My brief is to help them improve their transparency practices, starting with more and better “coming from” statements. See this page, for starters, and this one for an example of a “coming from” statement by a news site.
Earlier this year Tara McGowan, the founder and publisher of Courier, contacted me about what I have called in this post “the transparency system for generating confidence in the bearer of news reports.” I agreed to work with her company because I think she’s serious about putting that system to the test.
Some journalists remain highly skeptical about Courier Newsroom and its leadership. I understand why that is. I doubt they will be changing their minds anytime soon. What interests me is the strides the editors can make in transparency practices. As Sara Fischer of Axios noted, “Courier Newsroom is a local news group with a progressive perspective.” Two of its funders are billionaires George Soros and Reid Hoffman. Therefore it is especially important to level with readers about priorities, funding, and point of view.
6. The Marshall Project says this about itself: “We are not advocates—we follow the facts and we do not pander to any audience—but we have a declared mission: to create and sustain a sense of urgency about the criminal justice system.” To create and sustain a sense of public urgency about the criminal justice system in the United States is, let’s be clear, a political goal. But declaring that goal does not mean the Marshall Project has to politicize its journalism. It’s simply choosing to say: “We cover the criminal justice system and here’s where we’re coming from on that…” This approach has won them two Pulitzer Prizes, so they are in no way out of the mainstream. They have a point of view, they do best-in-class investigative reporting and data journalism, and they want to correct for people wrongly excluded.
We intend to expand our sources and readers to make sure we are talking to people who often feel excluded or caricatured by the news media — while maintaining our commitment to fact-based reporting. Investigative, data and engagement journalism will be central to our model. We will also explore alternative ways of telling stories so we make sure our journalism reaches those who might face literacy challenges or who haven’t traditionally received their information from written news outlets
7. “Getting personal about climate change made me a better reporter” by Sammy Roth. (Link.)
I’ve been transparent with LA Times readers about where I’m coming from — that I find climate change very scary, and that I care about speeding up the clean energy transition. This hasn’t hurt my credibility, or my ability to tell these stories. On the contrary, it’s helped me do my job better… Anyone who reads my stories knows I’m biased toward climate solutions, and my reporting flows from that.
Sammy Roth is an energy correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, for whom he writes the weekly Boiling Point newsletter.