The “here’s where we’re coming from” statement in journalism

And the logic of viewpoint disclosure.

8 Nov 2021 9:52 am 8 Comments

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.

4. Since 2004 I have explained to readers where I am coming from in this FAQ: Questions and Answers About PressThink. The part where I disclose my politics is here.

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.

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

8 Comments

Mark J. McPherson says:

“The View from Nowhere” in 2010 brilliantly captured the self-derailment of journalism, but I am not certain “viewpoint transparency” represents the road back to soundness. It feels like we are groping our way towards something, but the atmosphere is so occluded right now that it is hard to know if we’re heading in the right direction.

There’s something off in the phrasing because, however the journalist might avoid party-identifying words, “where I’m coming from” accepts the poison paradigm and legitimizes the corrosive canard, “fake news”. There may be value in declaring “this is who I am” but what matters so much more is “this is what I say”.

Charles Foster Kane’s vainglorious “Declaration of Principles” was only 2 sentences long, promising to report all the news honestly and to fight for the readers’ rights as citizens and human beings; neither invoked any partisan ideals and would have served left, right or center. It ain’t complicated and its from an 80-year-old movie, but there is something in it that has been lost.

The objectivity/transparency/disclosure tension is another asymmetric phenomenon, as, on the right, the prominent platforms and personalities are already closely identifying with conservative Republican ideology, falling all over themselves trying to win the race to the journalistic bottom to be pinned and proclaimed a virtual arm of the Party. There is no need for disclosure; that is their brand. To the extent there needs be any validation other than public, obsequious servitude to Party talking points and leadership, it is demonstrated, not through accurate, unbiased reporting but through willingness to present increasingly dubious reporting as factual.

For the rest of journalism, I do not understand why I need to know what a journalist “believes” before I can assess what they write or say. So long as there is an objective reality, as a polestar, it is not necessary to pinpoint every journalist’s precise GPS location on the political grid.

In the opening stages of the internet age of news, accessible news options expanded exponentially and people explored and sampled many new (to them) voices, and then were able to judge them against their personal subjective understanding of the world, without the necessity of labeling “for blue eyes only” or “for red eyes only”. It’s how I found PressThink and I didn’t need or feel compelled to vet its author’s political bona fides.

I don’t turn to journalism in search for an echo and an advocate for my views — I want reliable information and reasoning and judgment. It was possible then, and remains possible today, to discern whether journalists are well-informed, disciplined thinker/writers or whether they are performative hacks.

I have no more use for those hacking the news for the political party I support than I do for opposing hacks. When reporting in good faith was still a viable pursuit, I also followed journalists with political views very much opposed to my own, as a means of understanding and assessing where the bleeding edge lay. Good faith reporting has since been scalded out of Conservative journalism but I think it a great failing that many non-Conservative journalists reacted by retreating into this ludicrous, artificial and false middle-of-nowhere space. Part of the cover for this retreat is that it is all a function of a sustainable business model — that this big blob of savvy nothingness floating up there above it all is the only place from which enough money can be made to keep the lights on. How’s that working out? JR writes, “I like to test my ideas under real world conditions.” He has been so consistently insightful and prophetic that it hardly seems necessary, but that bottom line is unassailably a critical test and the trends continue dismal.

So, okay, declare yourself if you must, but move on and get back to the real business at hand. I don’t need to know so much about you, when I can judge you by the quality of the content you produce. There is still an underserved market out there for this approach, but it isn’t ever going to be as large or lucrative or loud as whatever it is you want to call what is ascendant today.

Here’s where I’m coming from: TLDR.
Many readers simply want a skeleton key to screen for content that fits their narrative.
Turns out there’s an algorithm for that.
Probably not many people who read The National Inquirer concern themselves with the mission statement. Similarly doubt there are many folks who want their content to challenge their personal narrative. You are a conservative until you get arrested, you are liberal until you get mugged still holds up to a degree, but now don’t expect fellow liberal or conservative to be swayed by your experience.
Media can offer opposing views, but sober and reasoned isn’t as easily monetized as entertaining partisan screeds. People knew where Father Coughlin was coming from, that’s EXACTLY why they listened. Rush merely repackaged his schtick for modern corporate radio.
More needs to be asked of the powers that be to provide space for content that doesn’t merely entertain, but addresses serious issues as we once demanded of those who profit from providing junk content.

Patrick Talley says:

I’m sorry, but for average Americans like me, journalistic objectivity – the “view from nowhere” – is simply more trustworthy than what Mr. Rosen describes as “transparency”, or “disclosure of intent”. More importantly, journalistic objectivity is far more effective at nourishing democracy.

First, Mr. Rosen’s approach assumes people read the news not to be merely informed, but to be “activated” – or at least they should. This is arrogant elitism. We’re looking for facts so we can make up our own minds. We’re not volunteering to be recruited into Mr. Rosen’s, or anyone else’s, social crusades.

Next, when a journalist takes a political position (left or right) in his or her reporting, the story becomes as much about that journalist as about the issue being covered. The more passionate the journalist, the more distracting this attention becomes. Over time, this serves the career ambitions of journalists, but not democracy; since the nature of celebrity is to amplify itself, not the people.

When journalists maintain at least the appearance of neutrality, the people are more deeply engaged in thinking about issues for themselves, weighing facts, considering their experiences, examining their own consciousness. When a reporter urgently advocates a point-of-view, they can drown out the inner voice of their audience, turning active consideration into passive compliance.

Even worse – and we see this more and more every day – a passionate news anchor on CNN creates a self-sustaining echo chamber among his or her “fans”, simultaneously alienating other viewers, who in turn seek out sympathy from sources they agree with (e.g. Fox News). This entire process doesn’t encourage democratic dialog, debate, and compromise. It entirely undermines it.

An institution with as much power as modern media should not be taking sides in debates the people should be having among themselves. Elite journalist can best serve democracy by keeping their hands off the scales and practicing more objectivity and humility. They should report the world as it is, not as they want it to be. And trust the intelligence and good sense of the people of this country, whom our founders established the First Amendment to serve.

“Here’s where I’m coming from.”

translation:

“My opinion informs the following.”

Using clever words to mask op/ed or solutions journalism changes nothing. Human nature says if you give me your opinion (in a story) I will embrace or reject. For or against. The root of polarization. That is the problem.

I do not look to ‘journalists’ or ‘reporters’ for solutions, particularly whether or not they and I agree to push for such things as “culture or arts”. (Does everyone care about culture and arts, or are they labeling so their readers can identify as being like-minded?).

“Quality housing and world-class infrastructure” — according to who? You? By what standard may I determine if I fit your mold?

Your actual premise here is a common contemporary one: Saying It Makes It So. But, humans — American humans in particular — do not like being told what to think, how to act, or whom to listen to — no matter how many times you say it, how loudly, or how perfect your logic may be.

Creating justifications for unwanted, unnecessary, opinionated pretense is a waste of time, and that is why this industry is declining.

The job of leadership is to say what is needed. The job of the press is to dissect. The job of the people is to decide. Mind your place.

Christopher Hoffman says:

I have been a journalist for more than 30 years during which time I have covered pretty much everything, local and state politics. the state legislature, zoning, schools, fires, crime, accidents, courts, medicine, science, features. You name it, I’ve written about it.

I think it’s a huge mistake to move away from straight up, just-the-facts, be-fair-to-all-sides journalism as is advocated here. My experience has always been, just lay out the facts in a fair way, and readers will figure who is venal and dishonest and who is not. I’ve also learned that things are often not what they appear to be. That means you have to remain open minded, listen to all sides and give everyone a fair shake. Taking sides, which is basically what you are advocating, will inevitably lead not only to inaccurate reporting but also undermine journalism’s credibility and integrity. That’s all you have as a journalist and once it’s gone, it’s game over.

Unfortunately, some of the most important news sources in this nation have increasingly adopted the approach you advocate, especially on the issues of gender, critical race theory and crime. An excellent example is the Washington Post’s reporting on the two sexual assaults in the Loudoun County schools earlier this year. Because it might threaten or at least muddy a certain narrative on gender that the Post is committed to, the paper first tried to ignore the story and then when it couldn’t do that any more, wrote stories that skirted some key facts and failed to ask tough questions. At the very least, there are serious questions about whether the school system sought to cover up a sexual assault, including giving out incorrect information at a public meeting, that demanded in depth, tough coverage. The Post choose not to do that. As a result, when the allegations ballooned into a significant issue in the Virginia gubernatorial race, the paper got caught flat footed an looked badly out of touch when Youngkin won.

Crime is another example. A little research will show that it is out of control in places like Portland and San Francisco. It has gotten so bad in the City by the Bay that probably the most liberal city in the nation is likely to recall its progressive prosecutor next year. Portland, meanwhile, is seeing its murder rate hit a new record as anarchists and homelessness wreck more and more of the city.

You would think that the Times and the Post would be all over stories. Instead, they have written little about either and what they have written has often left out or downplayed key facts and failed to give voice to legitimate concerns in the community. Often they have parroted progressive assertions about crime and punishment without subjecting them to journalistic scrutiny or simply left out facts that challenge those ideas. A good example is a recent New York Times story about Walgreens closing stores in San Francisco because of massive shoplifting. The story extensively quoted DA Chesa Boudin’s office without ever mentioning that many blame his allegedly lax prosecution policies for the shoplifting surge or that he is facing a recall effort over those policies. I would add that things are so bad that a friend of my wife’s who lives there — a die hard Democrat — strongly advised us to stay out the city during our upcoming visit to the Bay Area. It’s just too dangerous, he said. How is it not major news in the Paper of Record that one of America’s most, beloved, storied and beautiful cities has fallen into such a sorry state?

Some local newspapers have adopted the approach advocated here and likewise done a poor job reporting problems in their communities. It’s behind a paywall so it’s hard to say for sure, but based on tweets and headlines, it appears to me the San Francisco Chronicle has not been very tough in its reporting on the city’s crime wave. The best reporting I’ve seen on this issue has been from local TV. When two local prosecutors quit Boudin’s office in protest over his policy of allegedly failing to charge violent criminals, it was TV that got the exclusive interview, not the Chronicle. Pretty telling. The TV guys in San Fran have done old fashioned journalism, sticking to the the facts, trying to talk to both sides (Boudin refuses to be interviewed by the station that has been them most aggressive in its reporting on this) and held public officials’ feet to the fire.

The bottom line is it’s a huge mistake for journalists to decide that a certain group, especially an entire political party, is irredeemable and should be ignored or opposed at every turn. Not everyone in that party is bad and not everything they say is bad or wrong. Don’t misunderstand me. I am deeply angry about Trump’s and much of the GOP”s attack on democracy and sick with worry about whether our democratic republic will survive. But the answer is not to skew every story against them. It’s to report what they do accurately and fairly. Their actions speak for themselves. Skewing your reporting will only empower the bad actors by giving them ammunition to dismiss the facts you present. Abandoning the gold standard of even-handed, fair reporting will make our already bad situation worse and put our democracy in even greater peril.

Susanna owens says:

You’ve failed as a writer if the reader sees you rather than your words. You interrupt the “flow” of thoughts from one mind to another, if the reader stops to look at you.

Ziqing Jiang says:

I think what is written here is very thoughtful, the media is a very important thing

Thank you for this post. There is absolutely no contradiction between seeking the truth, between trying to “be objective,” and the fact that one always seeks the truth from a standpoint, sees the world with a particular “lens,” shaped by experience, by social position, training (e.g., in journalism), by language, by commitments, beliefs, values, motivations. The list could go on. The notion of a perspective-free viewpoint is paradoxical to say the least. Facts may be separate from us, but our access to them is not.

Knowing a journalist, or a journalistic enterprise, is credible and trustworthy is absolutely crucial since few of us can actually directly verify a story’s truth. For most of us Logos can’t be separated from Ethos. When I see a journalist disclosing her perspective (wonderful phrase) this makes her work more credible, since I can see she is aware of her “bias,” of her lens. She is therefore more likely not to get herself “mixed up” with the subject she is investigating – less likely not to project her bias onto the world. And I am more likely to see *how* she sees the world, what she may be assuming. Additionally, certain “lenses” or perspectives are more likely to catch, make contact with or illuminate aspects of the world, occluded by others. A good example, would be that pro-democracy bias you mention, toward holding public officials accountable – to the facts, to the public interest etc.. Imagine for a moment if Fox White House reporters had had *that* “bias” during the trump years. We’d be living in a different world, wouldn’t we?

(You are doubtless aware that the “view from nowhere” is also the title of an influential book in philosophical epistemology (by the philosopher Thomas Nagel (who was at one time also at NYU!).)

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