Journalists demand that those they cover be transparent, accountable and open. Public-opinion surveys consistently show that institutions practicing those three principles tend to be trusted. Those that don't, aren't.
So wouldn't journalism be more trusted if its practitioners were more transparent, accountable and open? Isn't this a two-way street? I think so.
At a sold-out "Journalism That Matters" event at the University of Washington in January 2010, I floated the "TAO of Journalism-Transparent, Accountable and Open" concept to more than 200 mainstream journalists, community journalists, freelancers, bloggers, tweeters, academics, students and others who had come together to "Re-imagine News & Community in the Pacific Northwest."
Among the tough questions we confronted were:
Who can be trusted in the "new news ecosystem"? What media sources are reliable, factual and accurate? How have the new media changed the rules of the game? How can journalists and citizens engage each other in discussing journalism ethics and performance? What new ideas might help restore public trust in the profession?
I proposed a voluntary "TAO of Journalism Seal." At the JTM gathering, several people had wondered if there couldn't be a Good Housekeeping magazine seal of approval for journalism. But that would require a large staff to review media outlets, bestow the seal, and oversee its use, which would never work. Who would do it? It smacks of "certification," which most journalists resist as a first step toward "licensing" or (horrors!) "regulation." Journalists are too diverse, feisty, and contrarian to agree on a universal code of ethics or professional standards. It'll simply never happen.
The TAO seal takes a different approach. It is an entirely voluntary, self-selected and self-affixed seal that anyone- freelancers, bloggers, hyperlocal sites, mainstream sites, individual reporters, editors, producers or anyone else doing journalism- in the broadest sense of that word- may stick on their sites, pages or broadcasts. If they pledge to be transparent, accountable and open, they could display the seal. This would both remind journalists (in any medium) of their profound professional responsibilities, and inform the public that some journalists are willing to publicly adhere to these goals. It could even become a promotional tool, which journalists might use to increase their credibility among potential readers, viewers and listeners.
People who take the "TAO Pledge" would agree to be:
"TRANSPARENT- We will fully disclose who we are, our journalistic mission and our guiding principles. We will post information on our background and expertise, including education and experience. We will list advertisers, donors, grants, and any other payments that support our work. If affiliated with a political party or special-interest group, we will disclose that. If lobbying for any particular legislation or regulation, we will disclose that. If we are being paid to promote a product or cause, we will disclose that. If other factors could be seen as potential conflicts of interest, we will disclose them.
"ACCOUNTABLE- If we get any facts wrong, we will admit that promptly and publicly. We will post/publish/print/podcast/broadcast a correction or at least a clarification. We will fully explain what happened to cause the error or mistake. We will do a follow-up story if that is appropriate, putting the original material in better context. We will apologize and promise to be more careful next time. We will show a little humility.
"OPEN - If there are credible challenges to our point of view or simply differences of opinion, we will be open to contrary positions. We will give the other side(s) opportunity and space to express their views and engage in open public dialogue through comments or other means. If we are primarily engaged in opinion and commentary, rather than news reporting, we will make that clear- while inviting others to express their opinions through comment and feedback means."
These journalists would not necessarily agree to abide by any particular code of journalism ethics or professional standards, although they may choose to do so. If they do, they will declare that publicly. If they don't, they will declare that as well.
This will not be enforced by any outside organized group. It will be overseen by everyone, on the Internet or in other media, who wants to see high standards of transparency, accountability and openness in journalism-through whatever media platform. Call it "crowdsourcing" ethics. If TAO Seal users consistently violate their pledge, they would be asked to stop using it. (It is a registered trademark.)
Will this idea fly? Who knows? It was well-received at the event, especially by younger folks who are already totally TAO online. Others have expressed interest and support over the past two months. (We even sold out a stock of 50 "TAO of Journalism" T-shirts at $10 each!)
If journalism is going to matter, it must be trusted. But to be trusted, it must be Transparent, Accountable and Open- the exact same things journalists demand of everyone they're covering.
That's why a TAO Seal might work. Be Transparent about who you are, Accountable to the public, and Open to other points of view. What's wrong with that? It's no panacea, but it could help.
Just TAO it.
John Hamer, a long-time professional journalist, is president of the Washington News Council (http://www.wanewscouncil.org), an independent, nonprofit forum for media fairness, accuracy and accountability. The TAO Seal is a registered trademark. To use it, call 206.262.9793 or check http://www.taoofjournalism.org.