One concern is putting this information out there without context could unfairly cloud the perception of a journalist’s work. Not every piece of reporting requires people to know what a person’s spouse does for a living, or which investments they hold. It’s more contextual. That’s a great argument for why we need this information in a structured format. That way, it can be gathered and stored and updated in an efficient and useful way. It can be disclosed in the right way, right away. It can then also be aggregated and analyzed to reveal trends and information.
News organizations are not, to my knowledge, doing this right now. (Am I wrong? Share an example in the comments.) Some operations have created topic and profile pages for prominent people that mix structured data with human curation. Here’s the New York Times topic page for Silvio Belusconi, for example. In contrast, here’s a profile page for a Times reporter. No surprise that a world leader gets a more robust page than a reporter. Fair enough.
But imagine if that reporter bio was broken up into individual attributes. Suddenly it would be easy to see how many Times reporters went to Harvard, or were born in Florida. Maybe there would be a tag cloud of the topics they write about, the names of the sources they cite. We’d be able to see which sources are perhaps overexposed by the paper, and which topics are getting the most and least amount of coverage. Wouldn’t Times editors find that interesting information to have? I bet readers would, too. Perhaps it would help us better understand trends in coverage and also to see patterns and potential conflicts of interest.
Think of it this way: this is the kind of data we’d love to have about the people, governments, agencies and organizations we cover. Why shouldn’t we offer the same level of transparency? Wouldn’t we benefit from a similar level of disclosure and transparency?
Stoll agreed the opportunity for his site exists in part because news organizations aren’t doing this themselves.
“I hope that this motivates them to do that,” he said. “If I were an editor I would say, ‘Gee, we ought to have our people on our platform and have this information on our platform, not his platform.’ But it’s not in there in most cases. A lot of these organizations make it difficult to access their reporters, and that’s why people pay tens of thousands of dollars to fancy PR firms.”
Stoll’s initiative invites the participation of the public and journalists to build out profiles and add information. (Journalisted is automated.) He has bit off something of an engagement challenge for himself, but so far Stoll said he’s been happy with the participation level. At one point soon after launch, he said, he worried he’d need to hire someone on to help him review the submissions and edits being made on the site. Aside from what can be offered on his site, he’s entertaining thoughts about how a database like his could be put to use for news consumers.
“I think once the data profiles are a little more developed there are all kinds of ways you can apply it,” he said. “You can have an app or a toolbar so if you’re browsing news and you see a name of a journalist it throws up an overlay that links to their profile.”
That kind of overlay could add interesting context to the reporting we encounter online. But, at the risk of sounding like I’m trying to move people away from
Still’s Stoll’s site, there is an opportunity for news organizations to build internal databases of this information and take a role in offering a new, meaningful level of disclosure and information about their journalists and the topics and people they cover.
If we could create standards for the structure of journalist attributes then the databases at different organizations could talk to each other and suddenly we have a very interesting and valuable database of journalists and their work. Of course, news organizations will differ in how much information they ask for and are willing to disclose.
Some outlets may feel comfortable listing phone numbers and e-mail addresses and the employment and education history of their journalists. Others may feel that’s too intrusive. Should they ask their journalists to disclose voting history if they cover politics? What about disclosures regarding any family relations that could crate conflicts of interest?