Originally published June 4, 2009
The Transparency Shield
In Decatur, as the Atlanta Journal Constitution continued scaling back local operations, hyperlocals such as DecaturMetro and inDecatur began filling the gaps left behind. Inevitably, the nascent exploration of areas long held by the media giant led to conflict. Discussions of what constituted journalism and appropriate credit spawned spirited discussions across the town square of the new media community.
70 miles away, Dr. Lee Becker, a professor of journalism and proprietor of the online site Oconee County Observations, inadvertently provided a perfect case study of the clash between traditional and new media.
His piece"Oconee Officials Met Secretly To Discuss Assembly Session" set out to expose possible shenanigans by his hometown politicians, but what followed was an easily traceable timeline of a typical old/new media convergence and then divergence.
On 5-23, Becker published his story about potential open meetings violations by the Oconee County Commission. Given his background and the thoroughness of the research and sourcing, there can be little doubt the piece should be considered journalism. However, what happened next raised familiar ethical and philosophical questions.
The next day, Athens Banner Herald staff writer Adam Thompson picked up Becker's story and published it on his ABH blog. To his credit, Thompson attributed the origin of the story to Becker's site.
One week later, on June 1, the ABH published a Thompson article on the subject in both its online and print editions. Neither Becker nor his site are mentioned.
The following day, the ABH published an editorial which referred only to the previous day's Thompson article. Athough the editorial board did not specifically claim the paper broke the story, viewed in the vacuum of the print and online editions, the implication cannot be denied.
There is little doubt the genesis of Thompson's story and the editorial follow-up was the piece published by Dr. Becker. As the story passed further from its origin and deeper into the traditional editorial process, the opaqueness of the original source grew.
Amid the assaults on the newspaper industry, one powerful shield which frequently remains unused is transparency. People simply do not understand how newspapers work and this lack of knowledge creates an atmosphere where readers are easy prey for those who peddle in myths of bias and lack of credibility.
When, where and how Becker should have been credited should be debated. However, it is clear the Athens Banner Herald missed an opportunity to use the transparency shield as a tool to give its readers a complete vision of this particular story and glimpse at how all stories emerge. A beneficial by-product would have been appropriate credit for Dr. Becker and possibly a strengthening of the perception of the new media warrior and the traditional media guardian sharing the role of protectors of democracy.
Instead, we are left with the continued friction and our separate pursuits of the solutions we all crave.