Facebook’s introduction this spring of an “About this Article” tag on news articles, in part linking to Wikipedia pages about the news organizations behind them, exposed the media’s own problems with transparency.
The amount of information provided on the “About Us” pages of news websites can vary wildly, but is typically bare-bones and vague. That’s if a reader can actually find it by scrolling way down to the very bottom of a home page and finding the link in small type, or guessing in which of a dozen drop down trees it might reside.
Facebook’s decision to add an “About this Article” tag to news articles came amid criticism that its algorithm had helped spread fake news and misinformation to millions.
Because of Facebook’s reach, the tag has the potential to help train readers to consider the credibility of the source of a news story before believing it or sharing it.
It sent newsrooms scrambling to check out what the Wikipedia pages on them actually say. But it should also be an eye-opener about how transparency measures could be incorporated at the article level instead of being relegated to some obligatory footnote of a home page.
For news organizations competing for the attention, trust and financial support of readers, there are plenty of wake-up calls about the need to better explain who they are, where they’re coming from, how they operate, and what readers should expect.
Fake news. Clearly explaining the structure, mission and people behind the company or organization behind the news that’s produced on your site can set you apart from fake news sites of intentionally opaque origin.
Reader revenue. This is also directly about the bottom line for news publishers. If digital subscriptions and/or memberships are going to be a significant portion of revenue, readers have to understand and trust a newsroom’s basic mission, business model, policies and practices. How clear are those things from the typical “About Us” page?
Ownership. Backlash has grown against the tactics of some of the hedge fund owners of large newspaper chains, coming to a head with the Denver Post’s own editorial page’s revolt against its owners’ decision to cut one-third of the newsroom there. And sometimes local ownership can raise questions, too, such as when billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson purchased the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Explaining ownership structure—and how journalism decisions are made in that context—will become an increasingly important part of the transparency readers will expect from newsrooms before trust can happen. Why would a reader trust a news article if it’s unclear whether owners are shaping the outcome for ulterior motives? And why would a reader support a news organization with a subscription if the money is being shipped to some out-of-state hedge fund that continues to slash local news coverage?
Privacy. A major related element of Facebook’s fake news problem was controversy over the access that Cambridge Analytica, other firms, and obviously, Facebook itself, had to readers’ personal data. Expect readers to demand more transparency about such tactics from any news publisher using programmatic advertising technology that’s tracking readers’ behavior across the web.
Policies. What else should readers expect to know about how a news organization operates? Most newsrooms have policies on how they handle mistakes and corrections, language around hot button issues, partisanship, divisions between the editorial page or opinion part of the operation and news, labeling of sponsored content and native advertising, identification and treatment of victims of crime, requests to remove content about cases that long ago were resolved in a courtroom. If they aren’t written down, maybe they should be. And if they’re not available to readers to see, why not?
Engagement. “Contact Us” can be the twin sister of the hard-to-find, vague and unhelpful poor stepchild of “About Us.” News organizations don’t do a great job of explaining who the “us” is behind their journalism and are even cagier when it comes to allowing readers to actually communicate with them. And one-way mediums in an interconnected, consumer-empowered world is doomed to fail.
It all comes back to that word “trust,” which has been included in the name of so many journalism industry initiatives aimed at both the fake news problem and financial sustainability. Transparency is the baseline for earning reader trust, and trust a prerequisite for financial support.
Matt DeRienzo is executive director of LION Publishers, an organization that supports local independent online news publishers from across the country. He is a longtime former newspaper reporter, editor, publisher and corporate director of news.