Open Newsroom

August 30, 2008 • Ethics and Quality • by

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, August 22, 2008
Swedish Television is opening its doors to all TV viewers: genuine transparency, clever PR stunt or simply another reality show?
All over the world, the media are striving to diminish the distance which separates them from their audiences: by increasing interactivity, explaining journalistic practices to their audiences, or even involving citizens in the search for newsworthy events. Public-service broadcaster Swedish Television goes one step further by launching a project that is aimed at giving its viewers direct access to the decision making processes involved in the production of one of its television news programmes. An innovative approach which nevertheless raises a few questions. Six months after the launch, project leader Eva Landahl takes stock.

Have you ever asked yourself why our mass media – TV, radio and newspapers – are circulating that particular news item on a given day instead of another? How do journalists decide whom to ask for a comment on a specific topic? What goes on behind the scenes of a news programme? Öppen Redaktion “Open Newsroom” is the name of a project whose main purpose is to answer questions like these, and it tries to do so by providing TV viewers insights into the inner workings of Aktuellt, a Swedish news program that airs daily at 9 pm.On the Aktuellt website, film recordings are regularly made available which show staff meetings and other discussions among journalists – so as to allow audiences to better understand, and hence appreciate, the news program that is offered to them every day, ready for consumption within the comfy confines of their living rooms. This is more than just another reality show. “We want to explain to the Swedish people the inner workings of our news program. A genuine dialogue is at the basis of our project, and not any kind of voyeurism”, Eva Landahl explains, senior editor of Aktuelltand leader of the project. “Before the whole thing started”, she remembers, “our staff was quite worried about the project and they asked a lot of questions: how were they to discuss their ideas in a natural way in front of a video camera? How could they keep insider information from being disclosed to competitors? Also, how to protect the identity of their sources? Only after a few days, their behaviour started to change. Because, apart from those concerns, the project also generated much interest among our reporters, and so in the end they all agreed to participate.” For the project, two video reporters have been hired who enjoy complete independence and have access to all meetings and every other form of verbal exchange between Aktuellt’s staff members.Their job is to capture on film the most interesting scenes and to upload them, only a few minutes later, to the news programme’s website. By accessing those sequences, Internet users get an inside view of how a specific event is turned into a news item; or they can download a video documenting the worries of a journalist who is about to meet Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt, widely regarded to be a particularly difficult interview partner. In addition, this particular video also shows what went on after the interview, providing the viewer with an overview of the entire news production process: from planning to realisation to the “aftermath”, as it were. In another downloadable video, Internet users are given the chance to witness a live TV debate in the making, including scenes which show how the Swedish prime minister refuses to enter into a face-to-face debate with the opposition leader but, instead, insists on appearing alone before the cameras. “The situation is getting difficult”, the journalist in charge of the TV debate comments on-camera, “the opposition leader has accepted a direct face-off with the prime minister who, at the moment, is still refusing the offer. What can we do now?” Making public such behind-the-scenes discussions is already having noticeable consequences: Swedish politicians and their communication advisors monitor regularly the Aktuellt website and seem generally more cautious when appearing in public.

The project has also had some positive effects on the journalists themselves. “Working in front of a camera has improved not only the language used during our conversations but also the quality of our arguments”, Eva Landahl explains. However, there have been some complications, especially during the sessions that serve to evaluate the news program aired the day before. Imagine you are a professional journalist who is criticised for his work by his boss. Then imagine that the whole scene is filmed and made available on the Internet shortly afterwards, accessible to everyone with a computer. Without a doubt, a situation that is difficult to deal with. Moreover, working under the watchful eye of a camera can become exhausting. So, after a running time of six months: has it all been worthwhile? According to project leader Landahl, the positive effects certainly outweigh the negative ones. “I’ve been in journalism for 20 years, and me and my colleagues have often been criticised by people who questioned our choices, for example after we had disclosed a name or published a certain picture. My impression has always been that people think we, the journalists, are making these choices arbitrarily.” The merit of Öppen Redaktion lies in the fact that it helps Swedish citizens understand that such difficult choices are not taken lightly. Quite the contrary: some of the internal debates available on the Internet – ranging from polite to heated indeed – offer valuable insights into the journalistic decision making process, in a format that is accessible to a general audience as well. In fact, between 1,500 and 2,000 people visit the Aktuellt website daily. “My hope is”, concludes Eva Landahl, “that our viewers, by getting all this insider information, arrive at a deeper understanding of the news program we offer them every day. Last but not least, I also hope that our efforts at making our internal operations more transparent will ultimately strengthen people’s trust in what we’re doing.” Whatever the real objective of this project – achieving genuine transparency or regaining lost credibility by means of a clever PR stunt – Öppen Redaktion definitely offers an added value to Swedish TV viewers. For as a result of this project, now they can not only watch their favourite news program – but also understand it at a much deeper level.

Interview with Edy Salmina, head of information at Swiss Italian TV and radio broadcaster RTSI

Could a project like Öppen Redaktion also be realised in our country?

To me, filming staff meetings and uploading the images on the Internet seems more like a clever trick – rather than a genuinely good idea, more a reality show than a slice of real life itself. Take, for example, a painter: if you film him during his work, does this really improve our understanding of his work? I think that true transparency can only be achieved by making public the guidelines of our journalistic work – not by filming editorial staff meetings. While the results of that journalistic work definitely belong to the public sphere, the same is not necessarily true for the efforts that go into producing those results. Moreover, given the small size of our sector, I see some additional dangers lurking here. For example, what about journalists’ right to privacy? And what about their freedom of speech?

Let’s assume there won’t be a Swiss Italian variant of Öppen Redaktion for the moment. Still, transparency towards the audience is a vital goal for RTSI as well. What do you do to guarantee it?

The whole news production process is made transparent in several ways. By publishing our internal editorial guidelines; by taking a stand on public issues; by being accountable to our audiences, which we invite to assess the quality of our programs, over the Internet, for example; by inviting the public to our studios; by informing people about important internal appointments; by publishing viewer and listener figures for our TV and radio programs; by hiring interns; by collaborating with public institutions such as the Università della Svizzera Italiana; and, finally, by entering into a dialogue with the public. Let’s not forget that the RTSI is supervised by a public institution with a cooperative structure, the CORSI (Società cooperativa della Radiotelevisione Svizzera di lingua italiana). Of course, there are still other ways of increasing transparency, a specialised program blog, for example. However, I think our most important concern should always be the quality of our programs and the journalistic creativity that goes into making them, especially in our multimedia times.

The pros and cons of an open newsroom
“Should editorial staff meetings be made transparent?”YES because
•    the public gains a better understanding of the inner workings of a newsroom;
•    newsroom members are prompted to think more carefully and find better arguments;
•    credibility is enhanced: people come to realise that journalists have nothing to hide;
•    “conspiracy theories” turn out to be untenable;
•    journalists get a feedback on their internal work routines;
•    the distance between journalists and the public diminishes;
•    journalists can live up to their own standards by showing the same transparency they often demand from public figures or institutions;
•    a groundwork is laid for a more meaningful dialogue between journalists and the public;
•    the people in charge of journalists’ training and education get access to valuable material that serves to illustrate the internal decision making processes typical for this line of work.

NO because
•    journalists’ competitors gain access to valuable information;
•    PR experts (“spin doctors”) can react faster and more efficiently to any uncomfortable disclosures made by reporters;
•    internal editorial debates may become less spontaneous and honest;
•    a false sense of “transparency” is created;
•    the real decision making takes place somewhere else;
•    people may find it easier to sue a certain journalist or medium;
•    serious attempts at increasing transparency could degenerate into mere publicity stunts;
•    newsrooms come across as highly egocentric structures;
•    the images broadcast over the Internet may turn out to be repetitive and boring.

US daily newspaper The Spokesman Review is currently undertaking a similar project: “Transparent Newsroom”. Apart from film sequences of internal staff meetings posted on the Web, readers can also ask direct questions about editorial decisions, which already has stimulated some interesting debates on mass media’s role in society. In addition, the newspaper’s website contains a specialised section where users can discuss the latest headlines or images published by The Spokesman Review and a blog informing about the day-to-day events unfolding at the newspaper.
* Torbjörn von Krogh, Swedish journalism expert, in: “Tidningsfästningen är intagen: Nyhetsmöten med full insyn”, Medievärlden, vol. 2, no. 7, pp. 12-15 (2007).Translation: Oliver Heinemann

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