Most media organizations are fierce advocates of transparency on the part of the institutions—corporations, governments, and others—they cover, citing the public’s “right to know” as justification for their activities. But when it comes to their own practices and policies, those same media organizations fail the transparency test, according to a new report by the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda.

According to the ICMPA study, most news outlets are unwilling to let the public see how their editorial process works. Fewer than half of news websites examined publicly corrected mistakes in their stories and only a handful shared with readers the journalistic and ethical standards that theoretically guide their news gathering and reporting.

“Transparency has become a buzzword in business and government because it is seen as a way to safeguard investors in one and prevent, or minimize, corruption in the other,” says Susan Moeller, director of the ICMPA and professor of media and international affairs at the University of Maryland. “But recent scandals… have made the need for transparency in news operations more acute. Newspapers, broadcasters and the now-ubiquitous new media all must depend on the trust and respect of their readers if they want to survive as serious providers of news and information.”

The report set out to measure transparency across four dimensions:
• the willingness to openly and visibly correct mistakes, even when those mistakes are embarrassing;
• openness about ownership, including information about the parent corporation’s other media and non-media holdings;
• openness about conflicts of interest, including information about any business or other relationships that might put individual reporters or the news organization in a position where the news judgment could be clouded;
• willingness to explain editorial decisions, including the values and ethics behind them and to make public its reporting standards (such as its sourcing guidelines) and ethical rules (such as its handling of stories about children) public;
• openness to reader comments and criticism, including the use of an ombudsman, publication of letters to the editor, or making staff accessible via onsite blogs or live chats.

The report came after the recent case involving the trail for perjury and subsequent conviction and sentencing of Bush aide Scooter Libby prompted Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Sydney Schanberg to comment that: “The press calls for transparency by government, corporations, and everyone else. But here the reporters reject transparency for themselves, and yet they say they are practicing good journalism. The public needs a fuller explanation, and that can only come from the reporters themselves.”

And it comes at a time when polls by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press over a six-year period starting in 1999 have consistently shown that half or more of  the American public believes media organizations are politically biased.

According to the ICMPA study’s authors: “It is no longer news to hear that the public does not trust the providers of the news. But whether or not that trend can be reversed is unclear. It is clear, though, that news organizations that want to be seen as better and apart from the rest of the pack will have to convince a skeptical public. Such skepticism is probably healthy, and to be expected. After all, the reading, listening and viewing public will, and probably should, always be skeptical of the media in the same way that a good reporter should always be skeptical of her sources.

“That means news organizations need to be open about what they do, even when, as was the case recently with the reporting of the shootings at Virginia Tech, the public does not like what they do or their explanations for their actions. It also means being willing to review their procedures and even some of their values in response to public criticism.”

The most transparent news organizations studied by the researchers were The Guardian, The New York Times, BBC News, CBS News, the Christian Science Monitor and NPR, while the least transparent were Sky News, Time magazine, the U.K.’s ITN, Al Jazeera in English, and CNN.

What most news sites manage best, according to the study, is admitting to who owns them. But even that public information is rarely prominent, and news outlets differ on the details they provide—most are reluctant, for example, to disclose information about the other media and non-media holdings of their parent corporations.

Similarly, most of the news outlets studied managed to offer a certain level of interactivity. Most have at least one or two venues through which readers can make comments about the news coverage: through contacting an ombudsman, writing letters to the editor, emailing correspondents directly or talking with them via onsite blogs, live chats, or leaving remarks at the bottom of stories. 

But while interactivity has become a necessary component of websites, the distinct impression many of the outlets leave is that they are not really interested in considering readers’ opinions, the authors say. In many cases, the interactivity options seem geared to generate “stickiness” rather than to allow the newsrooms to hear and respond to readers’ complaints. 

Only seven news outlets have ombudsmen—all newspapers, with the exception of National Public Radio and CBS.  And even more striking, nine of the sites have no provision for visitors to write letters to the editor—effectively all of the broadcast outlets studied, with the exception of CNN and PRI’s “The World” being exceptions.

The greatest surprise, the authors say, was how most news outlets handle corrections. Only 11 out of the 25 news sites visibly post corrections to their stories, and again the broadcast outlets have a particularly poor track record. The one major exception: CBS News, has created a section of its news site, titled Public Eye, devoted to transparency.

Finally, almost across the board news outlets are unwilling to make public their editorial and ethical guidelines. Many news outlets have internal documents that stipulate all kinds of standards for reporting and writing stories, addressing questions ranging from when reporters are permitted to use the term “terrorist” and how many sources does it take to confirm a story to whether journalists can be taken out to lunch, contribute to a political candidate, or accept speakers’ fees.

“While one might think that the media would be eager to make such documents public in the interest of honesty, accountability and credibility, the reverse has been the case,” according to the authors. Only a few of the news outlets in the study actually post their newsroom standards, and only a few others even speak about them in general terms on their sites.

“It’s true that media transparency doesn’t ensure that individual reporters will always be honest brokers of information,” say the authors. “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.”

As Schanberg noted, “Journalism’s most serious failure, probably, is its reluctance to explain how reporters go about putting together a news story…. This lack of openness about our tradecraft—this non-transparency—is really the mother of most of the press’s troubles.”