behind the news

The TAO of Journalism

A seal program promoting transparency, accountability, and openness
March 19, 2010

It started, as many things do in journalism, with a pen and paper.

Close to three years ago at a Journalism That Matters event in Washington, D.C., John Hamer, president of the Washington News Council, was thinking about the double standard that exists with journalism and the institutions and people it covers.

“What journalism needs more of is the same things journalists ask of everyone they cover—it’s a two way street,” he said. “We should be transparent about who we are and what we believe, be accountable and admit our mistakes, and fess up and apologize and be open to a wide range of other voices. That’s what we have demanded of every other institution in society. All of a sudden I thought, ‘Transparency, accountability, openness—that spells TAO’.”

He wrote those three words down on a piece of paper and started gathering people around him to talk about the TAO of journalism, as it were. In the end, about twenty people joined him in a conference room to talk about how journalism and journalists could do a better job embracing these values. That moment of inspiration led to the TAO of Journalism, a voluntary seal program that Hamer has been working on ever since. After receiving a challenge grant from the Gates Foundation last fall (Hamer had to raise $100,000 in order for the Foundation to award him $100,000), he moved forward with the idea and has created a logo/seal:

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Now the hard work begins. He’s hoping news organizations, bloggers, and other journalistic operations will pay a small fee to sign up to the program and display the seal on their Web site, broadcast, or print edition. They would also be listed on TAO’s Web site. The idea is that by signing up they pledge to adhere to these ideals (or ones similar to them):

TRANSPARENT – You’ll fully disclose who you are and where you’re coming from. Your background, experience, education, and – importantly – payments and/or conflicts of interest. Are you being paid to blog? Are you affiliated with a political party or special-interest group? Are you lobbying for anyone? Are you promoting a product or cause?

ACCOUNTABLE – If you get the facts wrong or misrepresent something, you will admit it publicly and post/publish/print/podcast a correction or at least a clarification. You will fully explain what happened to cause the error or mistake. You will do a follow-up story if that is appropriate, putting the original material in better context. You will apologize and promise to be more careful next time.

OPEN – If there is a difference of opinion, you will be open to contrary positions. You will give the other side(s) opportunity and space to express views and engage in open public dialogue through comments or other means. If you are primarily engaged in opinion and commentary, you will make that clear on your site/publication – while inviting others to express their opinions through all feedback mechanisms.

This is similar to the online seal programs that emerged in response to concerns about data privacy. Today there is the BBBOnLine seal and the TRUSTe seal, both aimed at assuring Internet users that the site they’re on adheres to certain privacy and business principles. Hamer acknowledges that journalists are often wary of initiatives of this nature.

“Journalists instinctively react negatively to anything that smacks of licensing, certification regulation, oversight—there is great resistance,” he said. “The attitude is, ‘Nobody can oversee us, we oversee everyone else.’ When you think about it, it’s just a massive double standard.”

A seal is a way to provide a sense of oversight without bringing in licensing bodies or the government, according to Hamer. He also thinks the program can be flexible enough to work for all of the varied organizations and individuals that make up the emerging media landscape.

“I think the beauty and I think the appeal of the TAO seal is its simplicity,” he said. “We don’t specify which ethical codes or what standards you’re going to follow—we just want you to be open about them. Just tell us.”

This evokes the initiative being led in Europe by the non-profit Media and Society Foundation, a body that is working to provide ISO certification to media organizations. One difference between that effort and Hamer’s is that the latter uses an ISO standard to certify participants. It also includes an element of auditing and oversight. Hamer’s plan is to enable the public to help provide oversight and confirm whether a seal member is living up to the TAO pledge or not.

“We want to have something on our site [inviting people to] report violations,” he said. “We want to crowdsource ethics well … my thought was, ‘Let’s invite the public—it’s a conversation today, after all.’”

Reports of violations could then lead to a review/hearing by a peer review group that would look at the reports of violations and determine whether the seal needs to be revoked. The reality is that many details have yet to be worked out—the idea took off faster than Hamer anticipated. recently wrote about the initiative, and so did Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust. The idea was also praised at a recent discussion, “Journalism Values and Vision: Leading in the Age of Digital Disruption,” at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. Tom Stites, founder and head of the award-winning Banyan Project, has already said he wants to be the first to sign up. (Hamer recently sent out a message on a journalism discussion group and offered that the first ten organizations to sign up can join for free.)

Support is one thing, but a workable seal program is another. Hamer is doing his best to push it forward and come up with a model that will be both effective and useful for organizations and the public, while also meeting the need to be financially self-supporting. Which is to say that for all of the thought, time, and effort that he’s invested in TAO, he’s trying to remain transparent, accountable, and open to the ideas and needs of others.

“I’m open to suggestions,” he said.

Correction of the Week

We incorrectly used the word “homocentric” when what we meant was “male-centred” (27 February, p 36). – New Scientist

Craig Silverman is currently BuzzFeed's media editor, and formerly a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.