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Transparency and Trust in News Media

When I teach critical thinking, I often suggest that students pay a good deal of attention to the news. When news stories develop, what details do journalists choose to focus on? What details are they ignoring? Why choose to focus on certain details and not others? When new details are added or the story is updated, how does this change the narrative? As someone who regularly monitors the news for ethical analysis, this is a phenomenon I see all the time. A news item gets updated, and suddenly the focus of the piece dramatically changes. This is something that one can’t do in print media, but online media can revise and change the narrative of news after it is published.

Given the rapidly declining public trust in media, is it time for journalists and news groups to be more transparent and accountable about the narratives they choose to focus on (some may even say create) when they present a new story?

One morning last week I began to read an opinion article which is part of a series of articles written by former national NDP leader (and Prime Ministerial candidate) Tom Mulcair for CTV News. The article is about the on-going national Conservative leadership convention taking place, and mostly focuses on one candidate, Pierre Poilievre, and his attempts to appeal to voters in contrast with some of his rivals. I didn’t finish the article that morning, but when I returned to it later that afternoon, I noticed it had a new title.

What was entitled “Tom Mulcair: The Conservative leadership debates will be crucial” that morning was now titled “Tom Mulcair: The Trump side to Poilievre.” This change was surprising, but if one looks carefully, they will note that the article was “updated” an hour after being first published.

Luckily, I had the original article in my browser, and I was able to make comparisons between the updated version and the original. Does the update contain some new information that would prompt the change in title? No. The two articles are nearly identical, except for a minor typo correction. This means that with no meaningful difference, the article’s title was changed from a more neutral one to a far more politically charged title. It is no secret that Donald Trump is not popular in Canada, and so connecting one politician’s rhetoric to Trump’s is going to send a far different message and tone than “leadership debates will be crucial.” The important question, then, is why this change was made?

Is this a case of a news organization attempting to create and sell a political narrative for political purposes? To be fair, the original article always contained a final section entitled “The Trump Side to Poilievre,” but most of the article doesn’t focus on this topic. The more prominent section in the article focuses on issues of housing affordability, so why wasn’t the article changed to “Tom Mulcair: Conservatives address affordability as a theme?”

Is this a case of merely using clickbait-y headlines in the hopes of driving more attention? The point is that we don’t know, and most people would never even be aware of this change, let alone why it was made.

A recent survey of Canadians found that 49% of Canadians believe that journalists are purposely trying to mislead people by saying false or exaggerated claims, 52% believe that news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology than informing the public, and 52% believe that the media is not doing well at being objective and non-partisan. Similar sentiments can be found about American media as well. Amusingly, the very article that reports on this Canadian poll seeks to answer who is to blame for this. Apparently, it’s because of the end of the fairness doctrine in the U.S. (something that would have no effect on Canada), the growth of punditry (who gives them airtime?), polarization, and Donald Trump. Missing, of course, is the media pointing the blame at themselves; the sloppy collection of facts, the lazy analyses, the narrow focus on sensational topics. Surely, the loss of confidence in the media has nothing to do with their own lack of accountability and transparency.

News organizations always present a perspective when they report. We do not care about literally everything that happens, so the choice to cover a story and what parts of the story to cover are always going to be a reflection of values.

This is true in news, just as it is true in science. As philosopher of science Philip Kitcher notes, “The aim of science is not to discover any old truth but to discover significant truths.” Indeed, many philosophers of science argue that the notion of objectivity in science as a case of “value freedom” is nonsense. They argue that science will always be infused with values in some form or another in order to derive what it takes to be significant truths, so the intention should be to be as transparent about these matters as possible.

Recently, in response to concerns about bias in AI, there have been calls within the field of machine learning to use data sheets for data sets that would document the motivation, collection process, and recommended uses of a data set. Again, the aim is not necessarily to eliminate all bias and values, but to be more transparent about them to increase accountability. Should the news media consider something similar? Imagine if CTV communicated, not only that there had been an update to their story, but what was included in that update and why, not unlike Wikipedia. This would increase the transparency of the media and make them more accountable for how they choose to package and communicate news.

A 2019 report by the Knight Foundation reports that transparency is a key factor in trust in media. They note that this should not only include things like notifications of conflicts of interest, but also “additional reporting material made available to readers,” that could take the form of editorial disclosure, or a story-behind-the-story, that would explain why an editor thought a story was newsworthy. Organizational scholars Andrew Schnackenberg and Edward Tomlinson suggest that greater transparency can help with public trust in news by improving their perception of competence, integrity, and benevolence.

This also suggests why the news media’s attempt to improve their image have had limited success. Much of the debate about news media, particularly when framed by the news media themselves, focuses on the obligation to “fact check.” The CBC, for example, brags that its efforts to “rebuild trust in journalism” have focused on confirming the authenticity of videos against deep fakes, a corrections and clarifications page (which contains very vague accounts of such corrections), or their efforts to fight disinformation. They say that pundits can opine on the news but not the reporters.

But what they conveniently leave out is that the degradation in trust in news is not just about getting the facts right, it’s about how facts are being organized, packaged, and delivered.

Why include these pundits? Why cover this story? Why cover it in this way? If the media truly wants to improve the public trust, they will need to begin honestly taking responsibility for their own failure to be transparent about editorial decisions, they need to take steps to be held accountable, and they need to focus on how they can be more transparent in their coverage.

The Roe Leak: Of Trust and Promises

photograph of manilla envelopewith "Top Secret" stamped on it

There is plenty to be said about the leak that brought us the news that the Supreme Court was considering overturning Roe vs. Wade, the case that legalized abortion throughout America. The most important issue is that, if this draft becomes law, many people will be forced to either give birth when they do not want to (and giving birth in America is dangerous compared to other wealthy countries, especially for women of color), or they will have to seek an illegal abortion. Not to mention that banning abortion does not decrease the number of abortions, it just makes them more dangerous (because they are illicit and less well-regulated).

My focus here is not on that issue, it is on the comparatively unimportant issue of whether whomever leaked the draft should have done so – though I won’t find an answer, I will explore what sorts of factors might help decide this. (Matt Pearce in the LA Times does an excellent job of explaining the various competing factors; there is no way that I could cover everything in this short article, and I will inevitably omit important factors.)

The leak itself has caused an outcry. SCOTUS Blog described the leak as “the gravest, most unforgivable sin.” (This might be a bit strong, considering the Supreme Court has previously ruled that slaves had no rights and Japanese-Americans could be interred in concentration camps.) The leak has also been described as an “actual insurrection” (seemingly by somebody who does not know what words mean) and as an obvious attempt to “intimidate.”

Others have offered more measured, reasonable, criticism. John Roberts, the Chief Justice, said that this leak was a “betrayal of the confidences of the Court [that] was intended to undermine the integrity of our operations.” He also noted that there was a “tradition” of “respecting the confidentiality” of such drafts, calling the leak a “breach of trust” that was an “affront” to the court. (It’s worth pointing out that leaking court opinions is not illegal – no law forbids leaking itself.) I want to suggest that even if everything Roberts has said is true, the leaker still might have been right to leak the draft.

Here is one starting point to get to Roberts’s position. Clerks apparently promise the court confidentiality, and to break a promise is itself wrong. After all, this is a reasonable promise to expect clerks to make (and this following consideration applies to judges, too): deliberating in an open way, where you can communicate trustfully with your colleagues, in theory helps to ensure open, fruitful conversation. (If a justice leaked the draft, they might not have made a promise, but the reasons to ensure open discussions apply to them.)

How exactly promises work is a topic of debate amongst philosophers, but one illuminating approach is offered by the recently deceased Joseph Raz that draws on the notion of “exclusionary reasons.”

As Raz sees it, what we should do is determined by what reasons we have. Ordinary (first-order) reasons help us decide what is best: if eating the cake will give me the nutrition required, and I want to eat it, then I should eat it if no reason exists against eating it. Now, if there is a reason not to eat it, for instance I have already had one portion and I don’t want to offend my hosts, then perhaps I shouldn’t eat it. Whether I should eat it depends on how these reasons weigh up: is it more important that I get the necessary nutrition and do what I want, or that I avoid any risk of offending my host. Promises are not like that: if I promised my wife I would only have one slice of cake, then the facts that I want it and it supplies nutrition, do not count. The promise excludes the countervailing considerations.

So, if there was a promise not to leak, then even if there are reasons to leak, perhaps one should not.

Yet even if the leak would breach a promise and constitute a betrayal, this might be the right thing to do. If a friend tells you that they are cheating on their partner, you might betray your friend’s trust by informing that partner – and trust amongst friends is important –  but tell that partner might still be the right thing to do: your friend’s partner does not deserve to be treated like this, and that might outweigh the fact that you promised your friend you wouldn’t tell.

Here are two explanations for why this might be okay. If your friend had said “I have a secret, promise me you won’t tell anybody?” you might think they are, say, planning a surprise party for a friend or thinking about a career change. You might reasonably think your promise has a certain scope, restricted to trivial things. If your friend had confessed to being a notorious murderer, you wouldn’t reasonably be expected to keep that promise, nor need you keep the promise when he tells you he has cheated on his partner. Likewise, in the case of the Supreme Court leak, we have to judge whether the promise to keep things confidential extends this far: does it cover overturning a law that has been settled for five decades, that will affect millions, and which many of the Supreme Court justices (even recently) suggested they would not overturn?

Or, perhaps sometimes it would be wrong to leak (because you promised not to) yet the best thing to do all-round is to leak it. This is a bit like the ethical problem of dirty hands: where to ensure the best result, somebody had to do something wrong. It might be that torture is wrong, yet finding out where the bomb is hidden is so important that somebody should do the awful thing and torture the suspect (this example is simplistic: torture is very ineffective). Likewise, perhaps leaking is wrong and damages the court, yet letting Roe vs. Wade be overturned is too dangerous, and somebody should get their hands dirty, do the wrong thing, and leak the draft for the greater good. This would be, in a way, deeply admirable.

The topic is complex, my point here is just that the fact that leaking is wrong, or the fact it betrays an institution, is not enough to get us to the conclusion that it shouldn’t be done. Sometimes – as tough as it may be, as much as it may damage one’s own moral standing or future career – people should betray others.

The Value of Secrecy in Congress

photograph of C-SPAN floor vote TV coverage

During both of the most recent impeachments, an old argument resurfaced. Afraid of retribution, many spoke out to advocate a way Republican members of Congress could get rid of Trump and keep their own seats. They suggested that the impeachment vote in the House and the Senate should be done in secret. Republican voters would know some Republicans voted to convict, but the blame would be diluted, spread across all 50 or so Republican senators. And so each Republican senator would individually be unlikely to lose his or her seat.

But this raises a question: if it would be good to convict Trump secretly, why not make the votes on all sorts of controversial issues secret? The people would know what laws were passed of course, but no one would be allowed to see committee meetings. No congressional sessions or votes would be broadcast on TV. You would vote in your representatives and then for two, four, or six years, you would simply trust that they voted in the way that was best. Members of Congress could pass legislation that might be unpopular to their constituency, but important for the nation at large. And neither ordinary citizens nor lobbyists could influence the legislative process after election day.

Many, however, are horrified by this idea. Making acts of Congress secret would be akin to government by aristocracy, rule by the elites, not democracy. Transparency is vital because it allows citizens to accurately judge whether their elected representatives are actually representing them instead of simply voting their own interests.

Let’s consider the arguments on both sides here and see if we can develop a better understanding of the issue. What are the benefits of congressional secrecy? And, are the costs to democracy too severe?

The first reason why one might think congressional votes should be secret is because this secrecy would allow Congress to stop acting only along party lines. Congress is extremely partisan nowadays and this hasn’t always been the case. Furthermore, this unwillingness to cross the aisle leads to difficulties in Congress achieving popular political ends. For example, nearly 60 percent of Americans supported Trump being convicted and removed from office after the second impeachment trial. Even more Americans, including 64 percent of Republicans, support stimulus checks. But, no Republican members of Congress voted for Biden’s stimulus check, despite voting for Trump’s. And finally, a majority of Republicans support increasing the minimum wage, but Republican members of Congress vote against it when the issue is raised by Democrats. Voting against political opponents seems to be more important to members of Congress than passing popular legislation.

The fact of the matter is that Congress isn’t beholden to your average voter. Nor even the average voter from their party. Members of Congress are beholden to the partisans of their party because of the primary system. According to a study from the Social Science Research Council, primary voters tend to prefer politically extreme candidates. And if candidates can’t make it past the primaries, it doesn’t matter how popular they would be in the general election. (Some have suggested primaries are responsible for Trump’s nomination.) In any case, if Congressional votes were more often secret, congresspeople could give lip service to extremism in the primaries while looking to what’s best for the country when they actually vote. Those extreme partisans wouldn’t know who betrayed them. Thus, legislation that is broadly popular, but not popular among extreme partisans, could be passed and perhaps we’d be better off.

But, partisans and primaries aren’t the only reason Congress doesn’t pass popular legislation. Another problem congressional secrecy, especially in committee meetings, could solve is the influence of lobbyists and donors. As I have written elsewhere, money in politics is a seriously corrupting influence. Lobbyists and donors frequently control the legislative agenda. But, again, this hasn’t always been the case. The number of lobbyists skyrocketed in the 1970s with the passage of so-called “Sunshine Laws” meant to improve government transparency. Some of these are good: Freedom of Information Act requests allow the people to have access to a great deal of information about the operation of government that would be otherwise hidden from them. But, they also allowed lobbyists to flow in from the lobby through the previously closed doors of committee meetings. As is argued by the Congressional Research Institute (a think tank, not part of Congress), these laws “enormously enhanced the ability of ‘outside’ lobbyists and powerful entities to influence the legislative process,” and so they claim “all legislative transparency overwhelmingly benefits special interests and the powerful.”

Think of it this way: before, lobbyists and donors could monitor how congressional votes shook out. If particular members of Congress voted how the donors wanted, they would get more campaign donations, and if not, they wouldn’t. This influence has always been around. But since the passage of the Sunshine Laws, lobbyists can monitor the entire legislative process: they can write the legislation, follow along with congressional committee meetings to make sure no revisions are made they don’t like, and display their approval or disapproval to members of Congress throughout the process. Of course, ordinary citizens can do this too, but they tend not to have the resources to lobby as powerfully as massive corporations or billionaires. If the relevant “Sunshine Laws” were reversed, many of these problems would go away, and if congressional votes were made secret too, lobbying would become a very bad investment. Donors could spend money on lobbying and campaign donations and hope that the legislator feels pressured by it, but they would never be sure if it worked. Thus, the influence of money in politics would be diminished.

However, there remains an enormous counter-argument to making the acts of Congress secret. I have been making a very utilitarian case for secrecy. It would achieve better results for the American people. But that may not be the only thing that matters. One might argue that the ends aren’t the only things that matter; the means do too. Making the acts of Congress secret would allow lawmakers to ignore the interests of the people in favor of their own opinions and values. It would allow members of Congress to lie to the people about how they voted with little to no consequence. Perhaps transparency should be considered a virtue such that if maintaining transparency means lobbyists and donors get their way, so be it.

One might say getting something they consider important, like removing Trump from office, or getting stimulus to the people, or raising the minimum wage, isn’t worth the cost of allowing Congress to be unbeholden to voters. Is a democracy led by representatives who can ignore the voters really a democracy at all? Many political philosophers, like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, have argued that government derives its power from the consent of the governed. One might hold that doing what the people want, even if it’s wrong, is more important than doing right, if it means ignoring the will of the people. A government that doesn’t act for the people may not be much of a government at all. And why should we think representatives know better than the population at large? They are only human. And more than that they are an unrepresentative sample of the country, being more white, more male, older, and wealthier than the American population.Thus, on this view, making the acts of Congress secret is untenable: it is valid only according to a consequentialist framework and anyone who disagrees with such a framework will abhor the fact that legislators will be incentivized toward dishonesty and away from democratic principles. As Aristotle wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics, to act “at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue,” nothing more, nothing less. This is a far higher standard than simply weighing the consequences and one we should strive for.

Making the acts of Congress secret would be an enormous change and not one to be taken lightly. As I have shown, your thoughts on this issue can vary significantly based on which moral framework you follow. The case, at least in the short term, is clear for the consequentialist. But for the virtue ethicist or deontologist, things are far murkier. Answering this question, as with many moral questions requires us to consider which of our values cannot be crossed? Which do you value more, if one has to be sacrificed: transparency and democracy, or the people’s welfare? In any case, something needs to be changed so that the problems of political partisanship and the influence of money in politics are resolved. Making the acts of Congress may be one solution but there are surely others. Perhaps we should reform the primary system. Perhaps we should overturn Citizens United to diminish the power of donors and lobbyists. The number of ethical solutions is only limited by our creativity, something which must be trained by continual practice and reflection.

The Persistent Problem of the Fair Algorithm

photograph of a keyboard and screen displaying code

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.


At first glance, it might appear that the mechanical procedures we use to accomplish such mundane tasks as loan approval, medical triage, actuarial assessment, and employment screening are innocuous. Designing algorithms to process large chunks of data and transform various individual data points into a single output offers a great power in streamlining necessary but burdensome work. Algorithms advise us about how we should read the data and how we should respond. In some cases, they even decide the matter for us.

It isn’t simply that these automated processes are more efficient than humans at performing these computations (emphasizing the relevant data points, removing statistical outliers and anomalies, and weighing competing factors). Algorithms also hold the promise of removing human error from the equation. A recent study, for example, has identified a tendency for judges on parole boards to become less and less lenient in their sentencing as the day wears on. By removing extraneous elements like these from the decision-making process, an algorithm might be better positioned to deliver true justice.

Similarly, another study established the general superiority of mechanical prediction to clinical prediction in various settings from medicine to mental health to education. Humans were most notably outperformed when a one-on-one interview was conducted. These findings reinforce the position that algorithms should augment (or perhaps even replace) human decision-making, which is often plagued by prejudice and swayed by sentiment.

But despite their great promise, algorithms carry a number of concerns. Chief among these are problems of bias and transparency. Often seen as free from bias, algorithms stand as neutral arbiters, capable of combating long-standing inequalities such as the gender pay-gap or unequal sentencing for minority offenders. But automated tools can just as easily preserve and fortify existing inequalities when introduced to an already discriminatory system. Algorithms used in assigning bond amounts and sentencing underestimated the risk of white defendants while overestimating that of Black defendants. Popular image-recognition software reflects significant gender bias. Such processes mirror and thus reinforce extant social bias. The algorithm simply tracks, learns, and then reproduces the patterns that it sees.

Bias can be the result of a non-representative sample size that is too small or too homogenous. But bias can also be the consequence of the kind of data that the algorithm draws on to make its inferences. While discrimination laws are designed to restrict the use of protected categories like age, race, or sex, an algorithm might learn to use a proxy, like zip codes, that produces equally skewed outcomes.

Similarly, predictive policing — which uses algorithms to predict where a crime is likely to occur and determine how to best deploy police resources — has been criticized as “enabl[ing], or even justify[ing], a high-tech version of racial profiling.” Predictive policing creates risk profiles for individuals on the basis of age, employment history, and social affiliations, but it also creates risk profiles for locations. Feeding the algorithm information which is itself race- and class-based creates a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby continued investigation of Black citizens in urban areas leads to a disproportionate number of arrests. A related worry is that tying police patrol to areas with the highest incidence of reported crime grants less police protection to neighborhoods with large immigrant populations, as foreign-born citizens and non-US citizens are less likely to report crimes.

These concerns of discrimination and bias are further complicated by issues of transparency. The very function the algorithm was meant to serve — computing multiple variables in a way that surpasses human ability — inhibits oversight. It is the algorithm itself which determines how best to model the data and what weights to attach to which factors. The complexity of the computation as well as the use of unsupervised learning — where the algorithm processes data autonomously, as opposed to receiving labelled inputs from a designer — may mean that the human operator cannot parse the algorithm’s rationale and that it will always remain opaque. Given the impenetrable nature of the decision-mechanism, it will be difficult to determine when predictions objectionably rely on group affiliation to render verdicts and who should be accountable when they do.

Related to these concerns of oversight are questions of justification: What are we owed in terms of an explanation when we are denied bail, declined for a loan, refused admission to a university, or passed over for a job interview? How much should an algorithm’s owner need to be able to say to justify the algorithm’s decision and what do we have a right to know? One suggestion is that individuals are owed “counterfactual explanations” which highlight the relevant data points that led to the determination and offer ways in which one might change the decision. While this justification would offer recourse, it would not reveal the relative weights the algorithm places on the data nor would a justification be offered for which data points an algorithm considers relevant.

These problems concerning discrimination and transparency share a common root. At bottom, there is no mechanical procedure which would generate an objective standard of fairness. Invariably, the determination of that standard will require the deliberate assignation of different weights to competing moral values: What does it mean to treat like cases alike? To what extent should group membership determine one’s treatment? How should we balance public good and individual privacy? Public safety and discrimination? Utility and individual right?

In the end, our use of algorithms cannot sidestep the task of defining fairness. It cannot resolve these difficult questions, and is not a surrogate for public discourse and debate.

A Call to Vigilance in the Fight for Congressional Ethics

As Donald Trump prepares to assume the Presidency of the United States, many have speculated on whether the candidate will be constrained by the United States’ system of checks and balances. Some, such as Newsweek’s Stacy Hilliard, have assured concerned citizens that U.S. democratic institutions will function as designed, ultimately withstanding any single leader and keeping Trump in line. Writing just days after Trump’s victory, Hilliard argued that Congress would provide the strongest check on the President, noting that, “The legislative branch’s purpose is to be the voice of the people, and it historically does not like being dictated to from the White House.” Though Trump’s policies may be worrying, she argued, Congress would act to filter out the workable from the impractical, discriminatory and unconstitutional, constraining his presidency within the bounds of a long-stable governmental system.

Continue reading “A Call to Vigilance in the Fight for Congressional Ethics”

Health Transparency for Presidential Candidates

From Grover Cleveland’s secret oral surgery to First Lady Edith Wilson running the Executive Branch after her husband, Woodrow Wilson, suffered a stroke, the legacy of medical cover-ups among Presidents and candidates continues. This past weekend, Hillary Clinton left a 9/11 memorial early after feeling overheated and dizzy, as well as losing her balance. Clinton’s staff later released that Clinton had been diagnosed with pneumonia the previous Friday and ignored her doctor’s request of a five-day break from the campaign.

Continue reading “Health Transparency for Presidential Candidates”