The mirage in the trust desert: challenging journalistic transparency

AI generated illustration shows a journalist working in a glass cage on a Finnish market square at dusk.

Proponents of the transparency discourse suggest that the audience would trust us again if we were more transparent about our work. Sadly, that might not be the case. Image: Midjourney 

29th August 2023

It is only fitting that a series of articles about transparency begin transparently: I have written 10 very long essays that you probably don’t have time to read.  

I really hope you do read them all, but I'm a busy journalist too and I know it might be too much to ask. 

That is why I wrote one additional essay: a summary of all the key points made. This way, you can read the headlines, and hopefully dive into the detail later. But before I get to the Cliff's Notes: a confession.  

I used to think I knew how to fix journalism. Yes, me: a fresh-faced university student in the early 2010s, thought: “If only the audience understood. We journalists have more professional know-how, journalistic ethics and editorial guidelines to adhere to than social media influencers. If they knew more about how the news is made, they'd value us more.” 

I wasn’t alone in thinking like this: more and more people were talking about the need for “journalistic transparency”. That was typically shorthand for showing the audience how journalism is made in order to improve their trust in us. 

But while the talk grew in volume, I didn’t see much changing in practice over the years. So I came to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism with the aim of defining best practices in journalistic transparency and winning back our audiences. 

I’m just going to spoil the ending right away: after talking with journalists, academics and ombudsmen, and after reading research and analysis about it, I am far less convinced that transparency is the silver bullet solution it has been hyped up to be.  

More specifically, I’ve become sceptical of transparency’s ability to do anything meaningful to increase trust from the audience. 

I guess I’ve also become a bit jaded about the transparency discourse and how so many journalists – myself included – accepted it at face value, without much critical thinking. It isn’t actually that difficult to see why transparency might not be a very effective cure to our problems as an industry. 

I’m not proposing that we throw the idea of more transparent journalism out of the window entirely. However, over the course of these 10 essays, I hope you will see why I have come to think we should manage our expectations of it.  

The transparency hypothesis

Transparency has been proposed by both journalists and academics as a solution to falling trust. The working theory: by showing how news is made, audiences will trust journalism more.  

The nature of the problem this theory aims to address seems similar in many countries: the relationship between news publications and audiences is broken.  

The hypothesis: if publications explained their processes, gave information about how and why a story was made, disclosed more background information or introduced the authors creating the journalistic content, then the audience would be more trusting. 

The science of trust 

If you have a hard time pinpointing what trust in news actually means, you’re not alone. It’s complicated. Many media scholars think trust in news media is a form of institutional trust and could be defined as “voluntary vulnerability”.  

If someone trusts a news organisation, there’s a power difference at play and it makes the trustor vulnerable because – at least theoretically – it is possible for someone to abuse that trust. 

While there is an epistemological component in trust (that is, evaluation of the quality of the source and its trustworthiness) there are probably other factors at play, too: satisfaction, relevance and interest, and whether or not an audience member feels represented in the output of a news organisation, for example. 

What is interesting (and potentially frustrating for journalists) is the fact that trust in news media isn’t only rooted in the output or performance of journalists. It is also affected by political and cultural factors. Quality reporting doesn’t necessarily lead to high levels of trust, and high levels of trust are not automatically a sign of journalists getting it right. 

Does transparency increase trust? 

Here is the million-dollar question: does journalistic transparency really work as a vehicle for increasing trust from the audience, or are we dealing with empty hype? 

Unfortunately, the scientific evidence is pretty damning. Transparency and its potential to build trust have been academically studied, and what research finds is that often transparency has no effects on trust. Sometimes quite modest positive effects are observed, sometimes it has even decreased trust in journalism. 

On the other hand, these experiments have their limitations, and it could be argued that we don’t know what long-term effects of increasing transparency could be. However, if transparency was as effective a tool for increasing trust as it’s heralded to be, it should have more concrete evidence in support of the enthusiasm. 

There are also theoretical arguments and focus-group based evidence hinting towards substantial limitations of what transparency can do in practice. If you don’t trust an organisation publishing news, why would you trust its description of how that news was made? It could even be argued that transparency is the opposite of trust, because trust is about, well… trusting. In other words: 'I don’t require further information because I trust you as a source.’ 

Seen from this angle, transparency doesn’t look like a tool that could increase trust; it looks like a tool that could potentially remove the need for trusting a news organisation altogether. 

Transparency as a moral obligation 

Perhaps we won’t find a silver bullet to all of journalism’s problems in transparency. That doesn’t mean we should entirely ditch the idea. We should just think carefully about why exactly we want to be more transparent (if that is what we want) and calibrate our expectations of how we would like the audience to respond. 

The most solid argument for being more transparent in our reporting, I think, comes from being morally obligated to do so: transparency is something journalists demand from other actors of the society, so it makes sense for us to adhere to a certain level of transparency, too. 

What's more, if reporting is conducted with a certain level of transparency, it creates an environment where journalists have to reach a certain level of professionalism. This could, potentially, lead to journalism of better quality and journalists more easily held to account. 

Transparency on social media  

There may be contexts in which introducing elements of transparency– such as explaining the reporting process, or providing more information about different sources of information – could be fruitful in terms of increasing trust. Social media might be one such context, because when news organisations publish there, they are directly competing with other accounts and creators whose guiding principles might be very different from those of journalists. The journalistic process, therefore, becomes a unique selling point. 

Here, I also touch upon the issue of motivation behind transparency. In the transparency discourse, transparency is supported because news organisations supposedly benefit from it (by, supposedly, gaining more trust). Perhaps a better motivation for transparency is that it should be something the audience benefits from.  

Transparency as theatre 

Another context in which transparency can be a meaningful tool for a newsroom might be a surprising one: on the stage. "Live journalism" refers to events organised by journalists or newsrooms wherein the journalists take the stage to share a journalistic story in a speech format. 

This format often includes elements of transparency: disclosing who the journalist is in relation to the topic, explaining how and why the story was made, sharing information about how the information was gathered. 

Here, however, we can unpack a dilemma that is always present when we are dealing with transparency: it is never complete. Transparency is always consciously managed in the sense that journalists are making decisions about what to disclose to the audience and what not to. On stage, as in print or broadcast, these decisions are affected by personal assessments of what is important, interesting, dramatic, thought-provoking or emotional. In this sense, live journalism makes one key element of transparency quite apparent: when someone else is deciding for you, transparency isn’t the “see for yourself” feature it’s often heralded as. 

Transparency as a marketing technique 

There is often a promotional element in transparency enthusiasm, which can be difficult to merge with other journalistic ideals. We aren’t supposed to be promoting anything, only providing our audience with the best possible information – right? 

Maybe, then, it is a good idea to separate transparency from journalism and turn it into a marketing campaign instead. This is what the BBC in the UK did: a marketing campaign promoting the editorial guidelines of the broadcaster, giving glimpses of how they do their reporting in practice. Unfortunately, the BBC was very hesitant to talk about their campaign for transparency. 

Transparency on demand  

Most people don't want to know how or why some piece of news came about – they just want the news. But sometimes some people do. That’s why it might be a good idea to try to tailor special products for those who are more interested or passionate about a topic.  

In relation to this, it’s a good idea to practice transparency preparedness or predictive transparency: there are times when the audience might have a higher need for explanations about news coverage, even when baseline interest is low. 

The pitfalls of transparency 

A big part of the appeal of transparency is that it feels very righteous. Surely, an ethical journalist wants to adhere to the highest professional principles. Being transparent about our work can feel like it belongs right up there. 

But it is also important to spend some time thinking about dangers and risks of transparency. Protecting vulnerable sources is an obvious reason to do so. Not everything we know can be made public. 

Ideals of transparency can be also used against journalists: what’s stopping an authoritarian leader, for example, coercing a publication to disclose where its sensitive information came from in the name of transparency? Transparent journalism can lead to serious questions about who is at the steering wheel, and how newsrooms maintain their autonomy when they publicly espouse transparency. 

There are also parts of our work that are very difficult to explain, such as story selection. Why was one topic covered yesterday, but another one wasn’t? While there might be nothing to hide, explaining one’s motivations isn’t easy because we may not even be able to succinctly verbalise all the intricacies that go into each decision. Getting someone to trust those explanations is even more difficult. 

There are also situations where the audience might not reward a news organisation for being more transparent, as sometimes it only reveals more mess. Furthermore, there is scientific evidence to suggest transparent journalism has the potential to disappoint audiences who disagree with how journalists handle certain situations. 

A mirage of answers 

The Serenity Prayer, popularised by Alcoholics Anonymous, sums it up for me: 

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. 

In my opinion, journalists are pretty good at recognising what problems we have as a profession. (And many of the problems are substantial.) Transparency has been proposed as a solution to at least one of these problems.  

However, I am not sure journalists are very good at identifying the things we cannot change – what isn’t in our hands to remedy. In my concluding chapter, I will explore to what extent trust in news is based on what journalists do, and to what extent it isn’t. Then I ask if transparency is trying to address a problem that isn’t fixable by journalists.  

Finally, I ponder whether in all our worries about how media literate the general public is, we might have forgotten to address severe gaps in journalists’ knowledge about journalism. 

Find full-length versions of all 10 essays in the PDF below.