Open media, open politics. A two way street

November 11, 2013 • Media and Politics • by

Transparency policies in the US and UK often fail to provide reporters with information that would help voters hold government accountable. Government open data policies are more often focused on providing information that helps firms build businesses or helps consumers make smarter choices.

The role of journalists in open government policies is not often discussed, but two recent events have focused attention on this question. At the Open Government Partnership summit  in London on October 31, Richard Sambrook of Cardiff University moderated a panel entitled “Government and the Media: Friends or Adversaries?”  Panelists included John Lloyd (Financial Times and Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism), Professor James T. Hamilton (Stanford University), Justin Arenstein (African Media Initiative), and Yuli Ismartono (Tempo Magazine, Indonesia).

That same day a conference volume from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism was published by IB Tauris with the title Transparency in Politics and the Media: Accountability and Open Government.

In the panel discussion and the book released that day, both journalists and academics concluded that transparency policies in the US and UK often fail to provide reporters with information that would help voters hold government accountable. Government open data policies are more often focused on providing information that helps firms build businesses or helps consumers make smarter choices.

They suggested four ways the media can respond to this lack of accountability information.

1.    Point out the best ways that government should release more data to reporters. Investigative reporters such as Sarah Cohen and Jennifer LaFleur make clear in the Transparency volume that government data should be released in standardized, machine readable forms. The true artifacts of governing, such as calendars, contracts, and employment records, should be released, rather than the second set of books that are sometimes created for public release.

2.    Do stories that point out the success and failures of open government laws. In the US newspapers write during Sunshine Week about stories made possible through data from the FOIA , and stories whose pursuit was blocked by hurdles the government puts to the release of information.

3.    Develop data journalism skills. Once the data are released, news companies need more journalists with the facility to discover the stories within the data. The use of data and algorithms to find patterns in government activity is part of the growing field of computational journalism.

4.    Be transparent in your own production. If journalists wish to hold government accountable to a transparency norm, they should honor it themselves. Ways to do this include the provision of the underlying documents behind a story (made easier now through DocumentCloud). Broadcasters can also bolster their credibility by providing more of the interviews that they conduct, as Frontline has recently done in series such as Money, Power, and Wall Street.

Photo credit: Doug88888 / Flickr Cc

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