Last week The Times reached a strategic frontier with the full introduction of paid subscriptions for digital access to its content. Perhaps less visibly, but also importantly, the newsroom has moved toward a remarkable integration of its print and electronic operations. The organization has evolved to a new state, one that lives online and expects to be paid for it.
This suggests to me a companion move The Times should make, one that would help secure a tighter bond with its audience: publishing The Times’s journalism policies in a searchable format and in a visible location on NYTimes.com. That would enable readers to see more clearly into the news operation.
People use the Internet to satisfy their information needs, and information about The Times is no different. The Times should step out ahead of its industry peers by creating a reader-friendly portal to its policies on ethics, style and usage, blogging, anonymous sources, social networking and other subjects that readers and journalists care about. I envision a link on the left side of the NYTimes.com home page that would take you to a Journalism Policies page where you could locate topics using a search tool.
Right now, finding Times policies is a bit of a treasure hunt. Some are available on the Public Editor’s page. A slightly different group of policies is available on the site of the American Society of News Editors, an industry group that posts the policies of many newspapers. Yet another version of some policies — covering The New York Times Company’s broader group of news organizations — is available on the corporate Web site. Nowhere online can you find rules on style and usage — though they already exist on the newsroom’s internal site — or the policy on social networking. And none of the material is truly searchable.
I’m not faulting the substance of The Times’s policies. The Jayson Blair scandal of 2003 spawned an intensive effort to strengthen standards and codify them. Taken together, the entire corpus of rules and policy is substantial. One could argue over some of the specifics, but as a demonstration of intent and commitment, it is an impressive statement.
I broached the idea of a searchable policies portal with The Times’s associate managing editor for standards, Philip B. Corbett, and he duly reminded me of the organization’s efforts to date to be “much more open and transparent in telling our readers what our standards are.” Then he added a note of caution. Such a project, he said, would take a lot of time and effort. Some Times policies address issues that are “very new and fast-changing” and would need periodic updating. Other policies, like the one governing social media, are not so much a set of rules as a broad governing statement.
Indeed, building the portal would require considerable programming time and might also lead to revisiting some of the policies themselves. Once in existence, it would need to be monitored and updated. The costs could be substantial, though nothing compared with the millions that The Times spent to build and launch its pay model. And, to be honest, there are other reasons besides cost not to do this.
Bob Steele, an expert in journalism ethics who advocates for strong standards and accountability, pointed out one of them. “The risk,” he said, “is that when you put your ethics standards and practices on the cyber-table, if you will, the heightened accessibility and the growing tendency of the public to throw brickbats will lead to a lot of headaches.”
As The Times’s fourth public editor, I can understand what Mr. Steele is saying and what The Times potentially has to fear. The Times is on the receiving end of an extraordinary volume of feedback, some of it very negative, from bloggers, television pundits and readers at large. The Times spends considerable resources to receive and respond to this input. At times, the feedback overwhelms the system, as happened recently when complaints about a March 8 article on an East Texas rape case went viral and buried my e-mail inbox under tens of thousands of messages.
Mr. Steele, head of the Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University, argues that this is not a reason to shrink from the task. “We have to accept that reality and the risk,” he said. “Journalism shines the light of scrutiny on the powerful. We look at the power company, oil companies, hospitals, universities, government institutions and other corporations. It is hypocritical if we are not willing to be scrutinized by the public for the way we carry out our work. Part of that is being clear about what our standards and ethical principles are.”
If The Times were to take the step I advocate, it would be out ahead of the pack. I visited the Web sites of a number of leading news organizations and struggled to find their policies. This reflects a deep ambivalence on the part of news organizations, I think. Since the 1990s, many have adopted ethics policies to build trust with readers during a time when polls show erosion of public confidence in journalists. But formulating such policies and publicizing them are two different things, as Mr. Steele attests.
The ambivalence isn’t doing journalists any good. Gallup polling last year showed that public faith had declined for the fourth year in a row, with 57 percent of Americans saying they had little or no trust in the mass media to “report the news fully, accurately and fairly.”
The simple truth is that more needs to be done to repair the damage. As Pam Fine, a Kansas University journalism professor, told me, “The industry looks to The Times to set standards.” The Times can play this leadership role and also build a stronger compact with its readers by inviting them inside.
“It’s not a panacea to put these policies online,” said Ms. Fine, who is also co-chairwoman of the ethics committee of the American Society of News Editors. “It is still not going to explain why stories were held, why some people were included in stories and some weren’t. But it will help increase trust, understanding and accountability.”
The Times has a good set of policies. It should double down on its commitment to high standards by organizing them into a reader-friendly format and then trust its audience — which is now a paying audience both online and in print — to readily access these important principles and rules. Will some abuse the privilege? Inevitably so. But elevating the dialogue with committed readers is worth the price to be paid.
This column was originally published in The New York Times on April 2, 2011.