Transparency or Bluff? An EJO Study

June 12, 2011 • Ethics and Quality • by

New EJO research assesses how European media allow for audience participation in editorial processes.

This international comparative study examines whether and in which ways the editorial departments of 12 Western and Eastern European countries allow their readers, listeners and viewers to engage in editorial processes. Are sources revealed and errors corrected? Do editorial departments appoint ombudsmen to act as appeal boards and systematically trace mistakes? Are there blogs, Twitter feeds and social networks utilized by journalists and users to discuss editorial decisions? Moreover, can similarities be found between Western and Eastern European countries, or have variances in journalism cultures led to the emergence of different forms of user involvement in journalistic processes?

The results: At present, the editorial departments of many European countries have introduced transparency instruments. For the most part, however, instruments which can be applied with little effort and do not require a great deal of support tend to be utilized. Nearly all of the media reviewed  offer commentary functions, links to social networks and photographs of staff. Yet instruments which are time consuming or require resources to engage in dialogue with the public are scarce. Media outlets in Europe rarely invest in ombudsmen and advisory councils, nor do they offer online tools like buttons enabling users to highlight errors in journalistic texts.

A large number of European media outlets seem to use transparency instruments primarily for marketing reasons, which creates the illusion that the audience can participate in journalistic processes, but falls short of offering genuine dialogue.

1. Transparency – An answer to journalism’s imminent loss of relevance in Web 2.0?

Journalism scholars claim that editorial departments and journalists must be transparent about editorial decisions in order to increase the credibility of a publication and to legitimate the media’s existence within society. This claim surfaces against a backdrop of cumulative media scandals, for example the phoney interviews conducted by Swiss journalist Tom Kummer which appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung’s magazine, or the magazine Bunte’s recent spying affair, in addition to a more general disenchantment with politics, for which the media are partly held responsible. On one hand, scientists ask whether the media assume enough responsibility for self-monitoring. On the other hand, they want to know whether the media provide  audiences with sufficient participation in editorial processes. To enable users to estimate journalistic quality more adequately, an editorial department should, according to Klaus Meier (University of Eichstätt), shed light on its structures and processes, unveil the conditions of reporting, name sources, discuss motivations including any self-interest, and, finally, admit mistakes and openly correct them. In a time where journalists must compete for audience attention with non-journalistic providers like aggregators, wikis and lay journalists, transparency has the potential to enhance confidence in professional journalism.

The use of ombudsmen, correcting of journalistic mistakes and disclosure of sources are all classic transparency functions that originally stem from print media. The digital era, however, creates new options for involving users in editorial decisions. These can include webcasts of editorial conferences, editorial blogs, Twitter feeds and social networks where journalists can discuss editorial decisions and thus justify their work.

2. Transparency in Journalism: A system

Transparency instruments can be divided roughly into the following categories:

  • Information on the editorial department and its general framework (stakeholders, institutions and their norms, publishing the author’s name/acronym; introducing the editorial department/journalists; contact form; indication of the authors’ email address and telephone numbers; presenting the editorial policy and the media company/statement of ownerships and involvements; the publishing of a code of ethics for the website/editorial department and the publication of guidelines on how journalists are to deal with sources from social media)
  • Information on journalistic work processes and sources (deep links: links to external sources/websites, registration of news agencies’ material and sources, crowd sourcing, users’ participation in research)
  • Information on editorial decision processes (webcasts of editorial conferences; editorial blogs, department “media journalism”)
  • Instruments for the correction of errors (error category/error button; ombudsman/readers’ lawyer; category for letters to the editor/criticism; advisory council)
  • Instruments for the promotion of discussion with and between users (commentary functions; discussion panel for users, category “most read article”, “most commented article”; connection to social networks, for example Twitter, Facebook, etc.)

3. Methodology

This study examines the degree of transparency demonstrated by the leading media websites in Germany, England, France, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Austria, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, and Hungary. Additionally Russian media were analysed.  The existence of transparency instruments in each of these countries was examined for

  • the website of the newspaper with the highest circulation released by each of the three largest publishing houses, including at least one broadsheet and one tabloid,
  • one weekly paper’s website,
  • the websites of the three newscasts with the highest ratings.

In the case of some countries, the choice of media had to be altered, owing to pragmatic research reasons. If, for example, the newspapers with the highest circulation in a country were all tabloids, one broadsheet’s website was examined instead. The recorded media are depicted in detail in each country’s report.

Moreover, the study examines to what extent the degree of transparency varies between the different media cultures, and whether there were discrepancies between the websites of the broadsheets and of the tabloids as well as between print and TV productions.

The study was conducted in the winter semester of 2010/11. Participants were students enrolled in the journalism seminar “Foreign Correspondence of Media” at the TU Dortmund as well as from the EJO-Teams of the Erich-Brost-Institute in Dortmund (Germany), the University of Lugano (Switzerland), the University of Wroclaw (Poland) and the Media Institute in Riga (Latvia).

4. Results

This study reveals large differences concerning the use of transparency instruments on the websites of  European news providers. Not only does the intensity of use vary between the different media cultures, but this variation is also reinforced in the discrepancy between print websites and TV productions.

However, the question remains whether the devices offered, such as error buttons or advisory councils, are really intended to enhance transparency and whether or not they actually succeed in doing so. While such instruments proclaim to promote the website’s transparency, in many cases their main purpose seems to be to support marketing strategies and to influence the media’s self-presentation to the public. Another explanation for the use of certain instruments could be their comparability with rival providers: the linking to social networks has by now become the norm in most of the analysed media. Only a few providers, such as the Latvian newscast Latvijas Neatkarīgā Televīzija or the Hungarian hebdomadal business magazine Heti Világgazdasá do not offer such a connection on their websites. In this context, a definite sign of transparency would be the publication of guidelines for dealing with social media instruments. These are, however, unavailable on any of the websites.

Instruments which are inexpensive and can be installed with little maintenance are favoured – only few of the examined media engage in time-consuming efforts.

Bodies such as advisory councils only exist within very few of the media outlets: among the examined media only the German Bild-Zeitung, the BBC and the Irish public broadcaster RTÈ possess a readers’ advisory council, an advisory council or an audience council, respectively.

The same applies to the publication of editorial conference webcasts, which can also be rather time consuming and risky. The Bild-Zeitung‘s temporary public review of the newspaper (“Blattkritik”) by celebrities, released on its website, has disappeared as have the webcasts of conferences of the Swedish Aktuellt editorial department. Several months ago, Repubblica became the first Italian newspaper to broadcast its morning editorial conference on the Internet under the title Repubblica Domani.

The integration of editorial blogs, however inexpensive at a first glance, is very time-consuming. A few of the media outlets, such as, for example, the German Tagesschau and the Russian Nowaja Gaseta, communicate editorial decisions through blogs. Many of the websites examined contain blogs by editorial staff, yet they focus only marginally on events and decisions within the editorial department. In most cases the blogs deal with specific topics to which the authors seem to be related. In individual cases, elements of editorial blogs can be found in blogs by ombudsmen, such as the one by José Queiros of the Portuguese broadsheet Público. In this context, for example, methods of investigation or journalistic decisions are explained by answering audience questions.

During the examination of how frequently ombudsmen are used, differences between various media cultures become evident. While France, Switzerland and Portugal presently have three ombudsmen each, Ireland has one national ombudsman and the Austrian Der Standard has a reader representative with tasks similar to those of an ombudsman. The German, English, Russian, Italian, Latvian, Hungarian, Polish and Swedish newsrooms of the analysed websites, however, have not introduced ombudsmen. (Sweden has a national ombudsman appointed by the parliament, though).

Another instrument is crowd-sourcing, which involves the audience in research. Once it has been set up, it requires constant attention. Its high profile presence within Polish media companies is striking. Both the tabloid Fakt and the public television transmitter TVP have integrated crowd sourcing elements in their websites. Moreover, the broadsheets Gazeta Wyborcza and the private TV transmitter TVN actually run crowd-sourcing platforms. Whereas Gazeta Wyborcza uses alert24 only occasionally, TVN journalists regularly and consistently use the platform Kontakt24. In other European countries, crowd-sourcing elements are employed by print and TV providers as well as by tabloids and broadsheets, but they are not very common. Austria is the only one which does not offer any crowd-sourcing instruments on the seven analysed websites. However, in the majority of cases there are no detailed accounts of how frequently user suggestions are actually picked up. This hinders any assessment of the instrument’s effectiveness. Nevertheless, concepts such as the paid Bild reader-reporters have enormous marketing potential.

A simple and yet rare instrument for increasing transparency is the release of a code of ethics, to which the editorial department binds itself. It is only in the Portuguese media that this seems to have become a norm. Apart from the free newspaper Destak, all of the examined media publish thorough codes of ethics or editorial charters on the Internet. Ombudsmen of the broadsheet Público and the public broadcaster RTP follow their own charters, which can also be read online. No information on codes of ethics or similar guidelines can be found on the German, Swedish, Italian, Hungarian and Polish media’s websites. The Latvian daily newspaper Diena claims to have a code of ethics – however it is not published. In some cases, like that of the Irish Times, this instrument of transparency is restricted to a brief explanation of standards serving as a general orientation for journalistic work. It is likewise questionable how close to everyday life these guidelines really are. For example, a link to the “charter of journalists” that addresses professional ethical questions can be found on the France 2 ombudsman’s website – it originates from the year 1918.

Another instrument that has a positive impact on public image is the option for users to report errors and thus, allegedly, participate in editorial work. This instrument, however, is particularly lacking in transparency, as the correction of errors is generally very obscure. Despite the fact that various media of different countries offer error buttons or other options for reporting errors, it is not clear whether mistakes are actually corrected or whether readers’ suggestions are followed up. This is different when media employ ombudsmen: In their blogs, readers’ suggestions are published and errors are acknowledged and corrected. The number of received comments, however, that are actually published and the selection of criteria for their publication remains vague. In Austria, in addition to the publications released by the readers’ delegate of Der Standard, Otto Ranftl, a column can be found on the website of Die Presse, which is devoted to general reviews and to explicit error correction.

Latvia and Russia are examples of what may happen when efforts to introduce transparency remain superficial. The Latvian daily newspaper Diena offers an error button on its website that does not work. As soon as a user clicks on the error button of the Russian weekly newspaper Argumentij i faktij it indicates that as a result of the complaint the responsible editor might be dismissed.

In Europe, a culture where reader suggestions and feedback is appreciated and seen as valuable is still missing. This is also reflected in the frequency of categories for criticism and letters to the editor. Explicit columns can only be found within four of the Irish media: Irish Independent, Irish Times, Sunday Tribune and Evening Herald – the latter’s link being faulty. Other options to publish readers’ suggestions exist as ombudsmen’s blogs (see the Portuguese Público) or reader’s blogs (cp. the French Sud-Ouest).

A current, well-established way for readers to participate is via the commentary function. All of the German, French, Austrian, Italian, Swiss, Latvian, and Swedish media examined offer this option. In other countries this function is in part restricted to print products’ websites. Discussion panels are less frequent yet still common. Approximately half of the examined media have integrated a discussion panel for users on their websites – with the exception of Portugal where only one panel limited to predetermined topics was found. Again, Polish media stand out: five of the analysed websites contain panels, as do most of the Hungarian ones.

Information on staff working in editorial departments is usually limited to bylines. Larger articles and TV productions are usually signed by name. If any, it is the permanent editors, occasionally the blogging journalists and newscasters who are presented by name and with a photograph. This procedure seems to be common among both red-top and quality media and there are no noteworthy discrepancies between the countries examined. When it comes to the presentation of the editorial department and the editorial policy, Switzerland and Poland are the only countries where at least four of the media examined introduce their editorial departments with some thoroughness.

Within the Polish media landscape, this trend seems also to be reflected in the media companies’ self-presentation. Rzeczpospolita, Gazeta Wyborcza, Wprost, TVP and Polskie Radio all publish detailed economic information. In this regard, only TVP (link to the company’s website) and Fakt (the management’s name and address) take a stricter line.

The German and British media also value media companies’ presentation: Information could be found on all of their examined websites. However, the release of information on ownership etc., is frequently not based on an explicit decision by the editorial department. For example, in Austria, land tenure and shareholding must be revealed on the site by law. In France, the disclosure of information on sales and staff is directed by juridical regulations.

All of the examined media can be contacted, either via contact forms or through a general email address. However, the option of contacting individual authors is less widespread. In most of the countries examined this is rarely possible. Examples are Der Spiegel (Germany), The Sun (England), or Le Nouvel Observateur (France). Switzerland is an exception, as most of the media examined offer this option. Individual editors’ phone numbers could only be found on two websites: Die Presse (Austria) and Latvijas Avize (Latvia).
The disclosure of sources and research processes is inconsistent in the various countries examined. In France and in Austria sources and informants are named. This gives the reader an impression of journalistic processes and of how articles come into being.

The German media examined proceed in a similar manner for the most part. In numerous other countries, however, no definite evidence can be found. Surprisingly, only German, Portuguese and Hungarian media continuously show how material from news agencies is used. Deep links are another instrument employed to help the public understand research methods. Portugal and Hungary – so far ahead of other countries when it comes to the tagging of agency material – fair extremely poorly in this area. No deep links to external websites augmenting a single article could be found in these two countries. The websites of Tagesschau and Heute supply these links on a regular basis. Most of the other media examined only use this instrument sporadically.

5. Conclusion

None of the countries examined are prime examples of transparent journalism. Strong variations in the frequency of transparency instruments on European and Russian news websites create a mixed picture. Certain instruments seem to be gradually establishing themselves within some countries. So far, trans-nationally, it is only connections to social networks, commentary functions and the release of the most-read articles that have been broadly adopted. Although national standards play a part, the decision to launch a transparency instrument as well as the consequence of its implementation depend on the individual editorial department’s decisions. Therefore, few stringent patterns can be found within individual countries or between red-top and quality media.

To summarize, transparency instruments which can be easily installed and managed are the preferred option. Instruments which are time consuming or expensive like the appointment of ombudsmen or of an advisory council are used less frequently. Furthermore, although some instruments superficially enhance transparency, they are much better suited to support marketing strategies. This can be observed in the case of the German Bild-Zeitung. While the paper recruits reader reports and has an advisory council composed of readers’ representatives , they do not seem to greatly enhance the transparency of journalistic work. Its use of celebrities’ public assessments of newsroom work seems also to have a rather marginal impact; their effect is, however, all the better in terms of self-promotion and positioning of the product.

The inconsistent use of these instruments casts further doubt on their effectiveness. In many cases the transparency instrument lacks transparency – for example when websites offer the option for users to report mistakes but do not elaborate on whether and by which means journalistic content is changed. The same applies to connections to social networks and the fact that no utilisation guidelines could be found on the websites examined.

6. Literature

Craft, Stephanie; Heim, Kyle (2009): Transparency in Journalism: Meaning, Merits, and Risks. In: Wilkins, Lee; Clifford G. (Hrsg.): The Handbook of Mass Media Ethics. New York, London: Routledge, p. 217-228.

Fengler, Susanne/Eberwein, Tobias/Leppik-Bork, Tanja/Lönnendonker, Julia/Pies, Judith: Medieninnovationen – neue Chancen für die Medienselbstkontrolle? Erste Ergebnisse einer international vergleichenden Studie. In: Wolling, Jens (Hrsg.): Tagungsband zur DGPuK-Tagung 2010 in Ilmenau (will be published in 2011).

Meier, Klaus (2009): Transparenz im Journalismus. Neue Herausforderungen im digitalen Zeitalter. In: Brandner-Radinger, Ilse (Hrsg.): Was kommt, was bleibt. 150 Jahre Presseclub Concordia. Wien, p. 83-90.
Meier, Klaus (2010): Redaktion. In: Schicha, Christian; Brosda, Carsten (Hrsg.): Handbuch Medienethik. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag, p. 149-163.

Study conducted by Tina Bettels, Susanne Fengler, Andreas Sträter and Mariella Trilling (TU Dortmund).

**We’re pleased to annouce that Tina Bettels received the award for “Best Paper of Young Researchers” at the Annual Conference of the Association of the German Communications Researchers (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Publizistik- und Kommunikationswissenschaft – DGPuK) in Dortmund 2011 for this paper.

Translated by Miryam Nadkarni

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