The Transparency Initiative

I recently attended a Westminster eForum seminar about PR and journalism, where I met Dr Martin Moore, of the Media Standards Trust. In his 4 minute talk, Martin mentioned the Trust’s involvement in something called The Transparency Initiative. The Trust has teamed up with the Web Science Research Initiative for this grant-funded work. I caught up with Martin a few days ago and we discussed it.

Here’s the situation which, as either a citizen, a teacher or a blogger you will understand only too well. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between commercial and, for want of a better word, factual, content in the news.

spiralThis may sound rather odd. After all, news is news, right? Well actually, not necessarily. In his address at the seminar, Nick Davies reported on some research he’d commissioned. Of 2000 articles, only 12 % were checked for accuracy by the journalists involved. Most of the stories were compiled from news agencies and public relations media releases.

The Transparency Initiative is trying to find a solution that will benefit both the journalist and the reader. It’s concerned with making certain basic information about the provenance of an article available for each article published:

· Who wrote it?

· Who edited it?

· Who was it written for?

· Was it intended to be journalistic?

· When was it first published?

· Where was it written?

(In a separate but clearly related initiative, the Media Standards Trust has set up Journalisted, which contains information about UK journalists. You can, for example, look up Nick Davies to see what he has written; or you can look up The Guardian newspaper to see who has written for it, and what they have written.)

Given that this information already resides on computers and servers, the trick is finding a way to collate it all and insert it into an article in the form of a snippet of code that could be read by search engines. It would be possible to make this invisible to the human reader, although that option would detract from its usefulness. An alternative would be to place the information at the bottom of each article.

If a solution is found by the time the project finishes in 2009, it will be free and open source, and the aim is for it to be easily able to be integrated with content management systems.

How might this help those of us in the edublogosphere? I would suggest it can be useful to us in a number of ways.

Firstly, as a rubric, the set of questions listed above is what every researcher, including students, should be clutching in their hand each time they read anything on the internet (or anywhere else, of course). The question “who wrote it?” is about much more than the person’s name. If you found out what else they had written, and who for, you would be in a much better position to gauge what their political perspective is whilst reading one of their articles. In other words, you would, to use common parlance, “know where they are coming from”.

You may not have considered the matter of editing. I recall once going ballistic at an editor of an educational magazine for inserting something into an article I’d written along the lines of “Perhaps this will encourage teachers to stop moaning so much about their lot”. I said to him that he is perfectly free to express his opinion, but not in my article, because it made it sound like it was my opinion. The editor is, in the context of an individual article, anonymous, so having this information could be quite useful.

The audience is clearly important. We all have this ideal objective information source in our minds, but the reality is that everything is written for a particular audience. Indeed, one of the aspects of the middle to higher levels of the ICT Programme of Study in the National Curriculum for England and Wales is the ability to cater for a particular audience.

“Was it intended to be journalistic?” may also seem like a strange question. However, if you think about it, there is nothing wrong with writing a media release as long as the reader knows it’s a media release. The same goes for pieces like editorials.

The date is potentially useful information too. And finally, where the article was written is something we tend not to think too much about. However, I am convinced that “hidden” variables such as the writer’s nationality, language and location are significant. It’s one reason I very recently accepted an invitation to join a Portuguese community. Although my Portuguese is a bit rusty (OK, I admit it: it’s non-existent), I thought it would be interesting to see if their being Portuguese (or, as it turns out, Spanish or Brazilian) would make a noticeable difference to their take on educational ICT matters.

Another way in which the “transparency code” could be helpful would be in giving us “citizen journalists” a means whereby we can be as open as possible in a pretty easy and trouble-free way. In my article on integrity I said that it is arduous and potentially silly to have to declare interests and absence of interests all the time. This sort of snippet at the end of a blog post would certainly go a long way to addressing such concerns.

Finally, if bloggers in general adopted the use of the code as good practice, it would help all of us determine the provenance of articles, and would help students to be able to make an informed choice between sources of information.

This may, of course, all turn out to be like the search for the Holy Grail. Journals such as The Economist, which do not credit individual contributors, may never get on board.

Could the initiative help us to become more informed citizens, or at least less likely to be unwitting victims of bias? Dr Moore suggests:

This is certainly not the answer to everything but it is, we hope, a first step towards raising the bar on standards of transparency for news on the web.

A slightly different version of this article was first published on 15th July 2008.