22 February 2008

Transparency at VOA News

The International Center for Media and the Public Agenda at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland studies international news coverage. Recently it released a report on “Openness & Accountability: A Study of Transparency in Global Media Outlets”. You can see it at:


ICMPA notes the news media routinely report on issues involving transparency in government and business. But it asks, “how transparent are the media themselves? How candid are they about how they cover the news? How willing are the media to make their reporting and editing standards public?”

ICMPA investigated 25 top news sites. It found that “most news outlets are unwilling to let the public see how their editorial process works. Fewer than half of the websites publicly corrected mistakes in their stories and only a handful shared with readers the journalistic and ethical standards that theoretically guide their newsrooms…”

The study was based on five measures of transparency:

“CORRECTIONS: Willingness to openly correct mistakes—Does the news organization visibly and/or publicly correct its mistakes, even when those mistakes are embarrassing?

“OWNERSHIP: Openness about ownership—Is it clear to the audience (ie: readers, viewers and listeners) who owns the news organization? Is there other information about the parent corporation that is divulged, such as any other media and non-media holdings ?

“STAFF POLICIES: Openness about conflicts of interest—Does the news outlet post its standards intended to guide the behavior of reporters, editors, producers? Can journalists be taken out to lunch, can they contribute to a political candidate, can they accept speakers’ fees? Is the news organization upfront about any business or other relationships that might put individual reporters or the news organization in a position where the news judgment could be clouded?

“REPORTING POLICIES: Willingness to explain editorial decisions—including the values and ethics behind them; Does the news organization let its readers know how it does what it does and why? What are the newsroom's writing and editing policies: when can reporters use politicized terms such as “terrorist,” how many sources does it take to confirm a story? In general, does the news outlet make public its reporting standards (such as its sourcing guidelines) and ethical rules (such as its handling of stories about children)?

“INTERACTIVITY: Openness to reader comments and criticism—Does the news organization have an ombudsman? Does the news organization publish letters to the editor and/or provide other ways for the readers to interact with the people who collect, edit and disseminate the news, such as by posting email addresses for reporters and editors, or by making staff accessible via on-site blogs, live chats, or space to leave remarks at the bottom of stories?”

VOA was not included in the study. But we are going to apply the same standards of transparency used in the study to see how we measure up.

We’ll report shortly on the News Blog’s internal findings. It is an important topic. It speaks to our credibility. As the ICMPA study notes:

“Transparency is not just a way to measure how successful journalists and journalism organizations are at living up to their key values, it is a natural part of those values. Among the values that many journalists hold dear are balance, accountability, credibility, and openness or transparency. Some of these core values, such as balance and fairness, are typically thought of in terms of the coverage a journalist or organization provides. In other words, is the news coverage fair? Others, such as accountability and openness, can refer both to government and powerful private institutions covered by journalists, as well as to journalists and their organizations. In other words, it is not only important to demand accountability of the subjects of news coverage, it is also important to demand accountability from those who do the covering. That’s where media transparency comes in.”

In the meantime, we’d like to hear from you on how you feel about VOA’s transparency as a news organization. We’ll include your comments when we return to this topic with our findings.

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