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Monday, June 18, 2007

Study: Media Needs Improvement in Transparency

Time, CNN among the worst


COLLEGE PARK, Md., June 13 /Standard Newswire/ -- The Scooter Libby trial dramatically illustrated that all is not well in the Bush administration and in Washington power politics in general. But it also showed how little most of mainstream media care about transparency, despite frequent calls from media organizations for greater accountability and openness from public officials. During the Libby saga, not only were journalists reluctant to say what they knew and how they knew it, but their news organizations were also loathe to admit mistakes and seemingly couldn't bear going public with their internal staff and reporting guidelines.


A new study out today from the University of Maryland takes a look at the media and concludes that, like government and corporations, news outlets lack transparency about what they do and how they do it. "News outlets call for transparency by others and are balking at transparency for themselves," noted researcher Susan D. Moeller, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland and the director of the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda which conducted the study. "The media are in the position of saying to the Enrons and Arthur Andersens out there, 'Do as I say, not as I do."


The new ICMPA study, "Openness & Accountability: A Study of Transparency in Global Media Outlets," looked at 25 of the world's top news sites to see which ones publicly correct their errors, are open about who owns them, post their staff and reporting policies, and welcome reader comments and criticism. Who were the most transparent? The Guardian, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor and National Public Radio.


Who were among the worst? Time magazine, Al Jazeera (English), CNN and The Economist. What most news sites manage best, according to the study, is admitting to who owns them. Still even that public information is rarely prominent, and news outlets differ on the details they provide-most are chary, for example, about disclosing other media and nonmedia holdings of their parent corporations.


Another finding of the study: most sites have at least one or two venues through which readers can make comments about the news coverage-by emailing reporters directly, for example, or leaving remarks on blogs or at the bottom of stories. But nine of the sites have no provision for visitors to write letters to the editor-effectively all of the broadcast outlets, with CNN and PRI's radio program "The World" being exceptions. And only six of the 25 news outlets in the study have a readers' representative or ombudsman-five newspapers and National Public Radio.


Even more striking: fewer than half of the websites (11 out of 25) publicly correct mistakes in their stories. Again, it is the broadcast outlets that have a particularly poor track record. "You'd think," said Moeller, "that news outlets that have been burned in the past by their inadequate responses to mistakes found in their reporting - such as CBS News - would have been eager to create a prominent space on their websites for corrections. As the Dan Rather case showed, trying to sweep errors under the proverbial rug only serves to enrage audience members and inflame the watchdogs in the blogs."


But where the news sites really did poorly was on posting their guidelines for writing and editing stories. Almost across the board, the study showed that mainstream news outlets are unwilling to make public their editorial and ethical guidelines.


"News outlets are missing an opportunity to demonstrate to their readers that they value accuracy and journalistic standards," said Moeller. "Now it's true that media transparency doesn't ensure that individual reporters will always be honest brokers of information - as Jayson Blair and Judith Miller taught the New York Times. But a news outlet's commitment to being transparent helps its visitors understand the judgments made by the news operation and gives those visitors a venue for complaints and criticism when something goes awry. Ultimately - if not immediately - transparency leads to accountability. And accountability leads to credibility."


The following is the list of 25 online news outlets evaluated by this study: ABC, Al Jazeera (English), The BBC World Service, CBS, The Christian Science Monitor, CNN, The Daily Telegraph, The Economist, The Financial Times, Fox News, The Guardian, The International Herald Tribune, ITN, The Los Angeles Times, The Miami Herald, NBC/MSNBC, The New York Times, Newsweek, NPR ("Morning Edition"/ "All Things Considered"), PRI/BBC/WGBH: "The World," Sky News, Time, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post.

This study on media transparency is the most recent report released by the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (ICMPA), a center of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism and the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park.


The study is available online here.

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