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Tom Meagher

News nerd.

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Bolstering transparency in our reporting

Back at the Herald News, several of the editors and reporters wrote a regular series of columns for the newsroom called “Best Practices.” In digging through my archives, I’ve found several that are timeless that I will gradually repost. This first one was written by Jonathan Maslow, and his tips for being transparent in our reporting and writing continue to ring true.

Our credibility as journalists and as a newspaper is the most important equity we have in the marketplace of ideas. The more readers trust us, the better our performance. We have to earn that trust every single day. One of the most important ways to do this is leveling with our readers: telling them what we know, how we know it, what we don’t know, why we don’t know it and what’s what. In practice this entails the highest degree of transparency possible in our publication. Work toward greater transparency:

1) Don’t use hearsay. Don’t describe things you didn’t see, but rather attribute it to a firsthand witness and tell the reader who that witness was. If you are writing about a public meeting you did not attend, be aware that readers must not be given a false impression. You don’t need to say you weren’t there. But you can’t report things as if you were there.

2) Don’t just use the boilerplate “sources said,” but give the reader as much information as you can without breaching trust, for example: “two sources in the AG’s office familiar with the case,” or “a high official in the department who asked her name not be used because she feared political retribution.”

3) Don’t just use the cliche “the mayor could not be reached for comment.” Use instead: “the mayor did not return repeated phone calls for comment over a three-day period, although City Hall said he was not on vacation or out of town on business.”

4) As you know, we sometimes have problems getting information from police on weekends. Don’t just let this go with “police did not release information.” Tell the readers, e.g., “Sgt. Troy Anthony said he could not release any information about the incident, because Mayor Sammy Torres, who is also acting public safety director, has told the police department that all news releases must go through his office. The mayor did not return five phone calls Sunday.”

Transparency is a habit, a muscle. Flex it and it gets stronger. And your work gets more accurate, better, more useful to readers.

  • Jonathan Maslow, Herald News, June, 2004