A Disclaimer is Not Transparency
Feb 23, 2012 Clay Johnson

Let's clear something up. A disclaimer is when you say something like: "Disclaimer: I am an investor in the company that I'm about to write about on my major media outlet that covers technology startups." When you're disclaiming something, sure, you're being transparent about something in particular. But you're not "being transparent."

Transparency is when you do your reader the service of giving them access to the same materials that you used to make the story. When people say "transparency is the new objectivity," this is what they mean. That at the very least, even if a story is opinionated, the reader is empowered to assemble the story for themselves and make up their own mind.

I respect Michael Arrington. I think he's an important voice to have around. I even like the idea of opinionated journalism and having the option to consume it, though I don't think it ought to be one's entire diet or even a majority of it. But I don't think that disclaiming your investments in stories that you write about is what "transparency is the new objectivity" really means.

Here's a study on disclaiming. It goes like this: some people have to guess how many pennies are in a jar. There's an estimator: the person who guesses how many pennies are in a jar, and an advisor: the person who helps the estimator guess based on knowledge they have (in this case, the range of the value of pennies in the jar), that the estimator doesn't. The estimator is paid based on the accuracy of her guess. The advisor is paid based on either how high or how accurate the estimator's guess is.

You should read the whole study, but it boils down to this: estimators who had the advisor's conflict of interest disclosed to them made poorer estimates than ones who did not.

That's because disclosure is for people who have something to hide. Transparency is about being of service.

But just like objectivity, this method is flawed. Transparency could be the new objectivity if this it was possible to tell the whole truth, but more often than not it isn't. Michael Arrington, as an investor in a company, knows more about a company's future plans and initiatives than he can report, sure -- but he also has keen sense of intuition about why some will be successful and some won't be that he probably can't express in words. None of this can be included in a story. But it's a start.

So what's the solution? For writers or other creators I think there are two key principles: Be of service and show your work. If you're of service you don't have to disclaim because you're empowering people to make up their own mind. Be of service to your readers and tell them what it is they want to know, and what it is you think they need to know. Show your work: Mitigate your opinion with data. It's great to have your perspective in the story, but how did you get to your opinion? Did you use any data to come up with that. Share it with us. Link to source material.

For readers it's to be ever more skeptical of the information being presented to you that doesn't provide this service to you. This is what Roger Ailes, who runs the most profitable media network in the country says about you:

Today television news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather any other form of communication. The reason: People are lazy. With television you just sit—watch—listen. The thinking is done for you.

Don't let the industrialized media do the thinking for you. And actively avoid supporting any form of media that tries to. So little news is actually relevant or actionable to you anyway. So just stick to the stories and journalists that are trying to be of service. Some examples that come to mind are Ars Technica and ProPublica.

Let's dispose of the notion that disclosure -- something one has to do because they're ethically obligated to do so -- is the same thing as transparency -- something one does because they're being of service -- are the same thing. They're not.

Information Diet © 2011 Clay Johnson