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Columbia Missourian

Transparency in the newsroom makes for better journalism

By Carrie Brown
June 23, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT
Carrie Brown/Guest Editor

Across the street from the Missourian building, professors and Ph.D. students like me pontificate and ponder about journalism. This week, we got to practice what we preach.

Our task was to fill the very large shoes of the Missourian’s faculty news editors who are away at a retreat this week where they are designing the newsroom of the future.

For me, this break from the books was the first chance I’ve had in a long time to go back to the newsroom where my passion for journalism was born, armed with a tool that I didn’t have when I was just learning the ropes like our student reporters are today: Transparency.

Transparency is an effort to tell you, our audience, how the proverbial sausage is made. We tell you as much as we can about how we got the information you are reading so that you can decide for yourself what you think and which source you believe. Instead of ignoring or writing around any holes in our stories, we tell you what we don’t know.

But as I discovered this week, transparency can also sometimes help us fulfill our watchdog role.

Earlier this week, reporter Holly Jackson was working on the story you saw in Thursday’s paper about the three-day earthquake-preparedness drill in Jefferson City. Jackson wanted to know how many taxpayer dollars were being spent.

One of Jackson’s sources told us she didn’t know.

Well, we found this a little strange. Strange that government officials would not keep track of their own budget, or strange that the source would not give us the information. We agreed the money was probably well-spent preparing for a large quake on the New Madrid fault that could cause massive damage in Missouri, but asking for the cost to the public seemed fairly innocuous. So we put what we couldn’t find out into the story.

When Jackson contacted the source again later in the afternoon for an accuracy check, suddenly the information about the cost was available.

I did the dance of joy around the newsroom. Instead of chasing our sources around like the paparazzi, we got what we needed simply by preparing to be honest with our readers about what we didn’t know, and why.

Here’s another piece of transparency that didn’t quite make the paper — until now. For our Thursday story on the construction delays in the journalism school’s new Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, almost all of reporter Carl Franzen’s questions were referred back to just one source, and he had difficulty getting others to talk to him.

Just goes to show you, transparency doesn’t come easy, even for a journalism school and perhaps especially when a multimillion dollar project is involved.

Thought you might find what we don’t know as interesting as I did.