Transparency is a key tool to improve trust in journalism, says award-winning Brazilian researcher

Brazilian researcher Denise Becker, from the Federal University of Santa Catarina, defends transparency as a key value for journalists and news organizations to face the wave of loss of trust that affects the press. Her research paper, Transparency as value and practice: Contributions of the Credibility Project to Brazilian journalism, won the prestigious Adelmo Genro Filho Award, granted by the Brazilian Journalism Researchers Association (SBPJOR, by its Portuguese acronym).

In her dissertation, Becker argues that journalistic transparency is a fundamental resource for explaining the process and origin of information, which has the practical effect of rebuilding trust with the public. However, news organizations resist implementing measures to increase transparency, which, Becker points out, also includes being transparent about who funds journalism.

"The technique of transparency and employing the elements of transparency to make news content visible need to be taught in journalism schools and newsrooms more broadly," Becker told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR). "What I've noticed — journalists are more in favor of adopting these transparency elements, but they're still very much held back by organization rules."

Below are the main excerpts from researcher Denise Becker's interview with LJR, which has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Denise Becker: ‘Quando analisamos os códigos de condutas de algumas redações, vemos que algumas vezes o jornalista é completamente tolhido de ser transparente, porque ele faz parte de uma organização’. Foto: acervo pessoal

Denise Becker: 'When we analyze the codes of conduct of some newsrooms, we see that sometimes the journalist is completely prevented from being transparent because he is part of an organization.” (Photo: Courtesy, personal collection)


What is transparency in journalism, and why is it important? 

The concept of transparency has several aspects, but in my work, I treat transparency as a value for journalism in this century of so much loss of trust in the news, of so many attacks on journalism professionals, of so much doubt. And in an era of generalized disbelief, because beyond the crisis we live in, we live in an era of disbelief, transparency is an essential marker to divulge journalistic content, to give visibility to the journalist and to the organizations as well.

What does transparency, in these terms that you describe, mean in journalistic practice? 

I defined transparency as a journalistic technique, which has elements and instruments to favor journalistic work and amplify quality information, and information with credibility. Some authors defend that this is the new objectivity, which replaces objectivity with a more current concept, for a more necessary practice in the context that we are in the middle of so much misinformation. Journalism needs to position itself better. So, it has elements and working tools for the journalist to show what they do. And how they do it, and the methods they use.

There is a whole process to implement transparency in newsrooms, both in editorial policies, in ethics policies, establishing criteria and principles suitable for the age we are in, in which the journalist can no longer say: "Oh, trust me, I published this information and you have to believe it." No, the journalist has to show why that information is really trustworthy, why it is true, and why it has facts in it that are really informing people. Journalists need to talk about their methods and walk the audience through their research, but, generally, journalists find it very difficult to talk about themselves, about their work. And transparency breaks this cycle a little.

Can you talk a bit about the transparency criteria?

My research was based on the eight criteria used in The Trust Project. One of the main ones is to make clear the nature of the content, whether it is news, opinion, analysis, etc. This is true both on the website and on social media. In addition, every publication has to have a photo of the reporter and a way to contact this reporter directly. The newspaper O Povo, from Ceará, is doing a very interesting job, sharing direct contact. You don’t have that thing of first giving a phone number to the general newsroom, which someone then transfers to a journalist or an editor. No. They can reach out directly to the reporter. Another issue involves explaining your methods of reporting, your working method, how you approach people, how you conduct an interview, and what your ethical criteria are for recording an interview. These are criteria that establish what journalists should do, and how they can apply these tools in their daily life. I analyzed the eight indicators [of the Trust Project] of credibility in three news outlets: O Povo, Poder 360, and Folha de S.Paulo.

And what are the main conclusions of your research?

Sure enough, one of the main conclusions is that the technique of transparency and the use of the elements of transparency to make news content visible need to be taught in journalism schools and newsrooms more broadly. Newsrooms need to embrace this in a more unified way.

The transparency that I am talking about happens in digital news, in the digital medium, because it needs the tools of technology in order to happen. Conceptually speaking, there are forms of transparency in which the journalist divulges the information and explains how they did it. There is participatory transparency, which is the most active and calls people to participate in the work. In my research, however, I realized that the scope of this tool is still very limited. It is extremely important, as a public interest service, that people know that they have this resource to participate in how the news is constructed.

The one that does this a lot in calling people to participate in the reporting, including contributing financially, is Agência Pública. Agência Pública already has a history and has been publicizing its financing, how they get its financing and its resources. One of the fundamental indicators of credibility is for the organization to show where its funding comes from, what its associations are, who sponsors it, and who invests in advertising. However, there is still resistance to this here in Brazil.

Why do the media in Brazil resist offering more transparency?

The justification they give is that there is a commercial interest at stake and that they can't reveal these investments, because it might get in the way of financial operations, investors, and possible stakeholders interested in the work of the news outlet.

And the literature shows that it is not quite like that. But we know that in the case of Brazil, as I discuss in my dissertation, we have the issue of the oligopoly of the media. The market is very centered on five families. The issue of transparency of the financing and the associations of the news companies is still very obscure.

What I have noticed — journalists are more in favor of adopting these elements of transparency, but they are still very much hindered by the rules of the organization.

When we analyze the codes of conduct of some newsrooms, we see that sometimes news organizations prevent journalists from being transparent. It is not the desired transparency, nor is it ideal. We still have a long way to go to get to that point.

But I also think that we are evolving. We are opening the way to a new era of journalism, which is transparency. It seems like a trendy word, but you can see it in other areas, like political science, architecture, physics, education, the environment, whatever the area, and especially in the commercial area. As a commercial strategy, transparency strengthens the brand. The more people identify with the brand, the better for the journalistic organization in terms of credibility, strengthening of the activity, and sustainability of journalism.

What are the next steps in your research?

My next step is to ask audiences whether they can perceive any differences in news sites that use elements of transparency. If they notice any difference and if this really encourages them to trust that content, that journalist, that news outlet, it is because they are showing more transparency in their work.