Tumblelog by Soup.io
Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

An Ethical Argument for Transparency in Journalism

In a recent post on my website I examined an ethical argument for transparency. I will continue this internal dialogue with the caveat that I am not a journalism academic. I do not prescribe my beliefs to anyone but myself. This is a disgustingly theoretical post (I promise the next one will be practical up the wahzoo). I should also note the inspiration behind these two posts was a discussion at FOO Camp: Philosophy and Technology - Tim O'Reilly and Damon Horowitz.

The First Chapter

The first post on this topic hinged on the idea that transparency is necessary for public participation in journalism.

This Wikipedia quote puts it bluntly. The argument for transparency then isn't ethical so much as practical. It's a second order argument. The process of journalism must be transparent if we expect people to participate in a meaningful way. This assumes, however, that we want people to participate.

If we can reason that participation in journalism is ethical and transparency is necessary for participation to occur, it follows that there is an ethical argument for transparency.

Which means the next step is to examine the base of this syllogism: There is an ethical argument for participation in journalism.

The Goal of Journalism

What is the purpose or goal of journalism? In philosophy I might pose this as, what is journalism's Telos -- its purpose, aim, end and/or design.

The reason this question (and blog post) is important is that if you look at the current understanding of ethics in journalism you can see that it is more along the lines of a professional code than an ethical debate or analysis. Public accountability is mentioned in many of the existing code of ethics. As is the rightful dissemination of information to the public. But in almost all of these cannons of journalism the public is acted upon and is rarely an actor.

When I ask what is the goal of journalism I am not interested in the journalism industry or a journalism company. The goal for both of which would be the same for any industry (protecting itself as an economic good) or company (increasing revenue).

The tagline for my blog is "journalism is a process, not a product," and that continues to be my rallying cry. Too often our ethics, ideas of success and end goals are determined by journalism as a product, industry or company. I am more interested in the process of journalism. What is the end goal for an act of journalism?

Now here I have to posit a question: If an act of journalism is committed but never published, is it an act of journalism?

Many people don't know this, but I used to be a musician. I've actually recorded at least two albums. But I never promoted my work. So if a work of art is not shared, is it art? What is the distinction between art and hobby? Related: If an act of reporting occurs but is not shared, is it journalism? What is the distinction between journalism and journaling?

I ask this question because it gives me the platform to pose a possible end goal of journalism -- to inform. Journalism, which is a tricky thing to define, is the process of collecting, filtering and distributing information that has meaning. One caveat of course is that the information is non-fiction (true and accurate).

If we take away the "distributing" of information we no longer have the process of journalism. It is the final step in the process because it is the final Telos of journalism -- to inform our fellow human beings. Size of the audience aside, journalism is fundamentally a process of education. But when we look at the conversation about journalism, those two words are most often coupled around journalism education (journalism schools) and rarely about how the two endeavors are intimately tied.

Informing is Participatory

So the goal of journalism is to inform people about events in the world. This is fundamentally a social act and would remain the goal of journalism if we lived in a democracy, republic or any other kind of society.

Historically speaking, the "participation" of journalism consumers was to consume. That is a form of participation, but not necessarily the kind that I wan to justify. If it were, this blog post could have been much shorter: "We can justify transparency in journalism because people need to be able to read it!"

The kind of participation that I want to argue for is more engaging. Members of the public are not participating by the sheer act of be informed, but they are self-informing. It's the difference between roads that make public transportation possible and roads that make all forms of transportation possible.

Why Individual Participation is Ethical

And herein lies the base of this whole thought process. It comes down to the individual. It is the individual, as part of a collective, that journalism seeks to inform. The individual should be actively participating in the dissemination of information for several reasons:

1. On a utilitarian level, they will become more informed and help inform more people. If the good of journalism is to inform, then letting more people participate will inform more people. Similarly, the mission of roads is to enable travel/transportation, not to safeguard public transportation. (There could be unintended consequences, of source, such as pollution.) The mission of journalism is to inform, not to safeguard journalism companies. A network has infinity more connections and that requires active participation and self-informed informants.

2. They have a moral right as an individual to participate to the extent that they do not hinder others from participating. (See individualism).


So, to review:

  • Transparency is required for well-informed participation to happen.
  • Participation is needed because....
  • Journalism's end goal is to inform other people.
  • More people participating in the process of journalism means more people being informed.
  • Combine this with individual rights and ...

The journalism industry has a moral obligation to make the practices and processes of journalism more transparent so that the larger citizenry can participate.

Behind the lack of climax

Perhaps I could have shortened this blog post. I made every attempt to go step-by-step and lay out my line or reasoning.


Too often our discussion of participatory journalism, citizen journalism, etc takes an industry or company view. Either citizen journalism is good or bad because of its relationship to a bottom line.

Slighter better arguments are that participatory journalism is good/bad because of its quality (or lack of).

What I'm suggesting is that participation in the media is a net positive because of its intrinsic value.

Don't be the product, buy the product!