Transparency is a necessary principle for all media types

What makes for good journalism? It's not so much a set of specific techniques or practices. It's all about principles.

What makes for good journalism? It's not so much a set of specific techniques or practices. It's all about principles.

Journalism is increasingly coming not just from traditional media companies. Bloggers, think tanks, and even corporations are creating content that, at times, veers into the journalistic sphere.

In such an ecosystem, these principles are becoming more important than ever. What are they?

You'll find four of them in the arsenal of any honorable traditional journalist. They are thoroughness, accuracy, fairness, and independence.

They're fairly simple ideas. Get as much information as possible in the time permitted. Get it right. Be fair to all sides of an issue. And be as independent as possible, especially when it comes to independent thinking.

But we need to add a fifth principle of journalism in this age of conversational media: transparency.

Being open about one's motives and interests isn't just for the bloggers and others who may well have a stake in the outcome or a strong bias one way or the other - though it's clearly essential in those cases. It's also for the professional journalists who are, in part, paid not to have conflicts of interest.

Transparency in the professional ranks has been notable for its absence recently. Few businesses have been as opaque as the journalism companies, which passionately insist that other newsmakers explain their actions, but turn mute when asked to explain their own.

This has been changing, slowly but surely, in the past few years. Some of this has been forced by scandal, such as the Jayson Blair debacle at The New York Times, which bared its newsroom soul in painful detail and, to some degree, has changed policies to prevent a recurrence. The Times' ombudsman, called a "public editor," has been another welcome change.

But the media in general remain much too reticent. This can't last, because the rest of us are demanding more from these institutions that have such influence over the rest of society.

Bloggers have helped force open the traditional journalism industry's collective kimono by becoming the media watchdog that the professionals should have been long ago. In fact, one of the best things about blogging is its role as a sometimes unfair, but frequently incisive press criticism machine.

The bloggers themselves tend to be more transparent than the media they cover. Some of the most credible bloggers are absolutely clear in their biases. Readers can weigh those world views against the postings and make appropriate adjustments.

A disturbing feature in some blog circles is the undisclosed (or poorly disclosed) conflict of interest. This extends particularly to the odious practice of paying bloggers to post about companies or products (or politicians) without requiring a detailed disclaimer.

Transparency is easier to say than to accomplish, of course. How transparent should people be? I tend to bias on the side of more than less disclosure, but I'm not planning to publish my tax returns. If that bothers anyone, sorry.

Dan Gillmor is the author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People. He's also director of the Center for Citizen Media.

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