Media must be more open to save democracy

Media must be more open to save democracy

Journalism can help save democracies from the brink of collapse but only if adopts a “radical transparency” with its audience, according to the New York Times’s longest-serving public editor.

Margaret Sullivan, now an academic and Guardian US columnist, says one of the biggest problems facing free societies across the world is that up to 40% of people do not trust the mainstream media.

In a keynote address to the Organization of News Ombudsmen and Standards Editors, hosted by the Guardian in London, Sullivan set out how “trustworthy journalism” can help preserve global democracy.

She said: “I feel that American democracy is on the brink and this is true of democracies around the world. Journalism has a huge part in making sure democracy doesn’t fall into the sea. Democracy depends on truth. Truth depends, at least in part, on good journalism.”

Sullivan said media organisations had to be much more open with audiences about their reporting methods and sources.

She explained: “I call it radical transparency: journalists should explain how they came to conclusions and their reporting techniques, and share primary information. In other words: ‘Here are receipts, you can see them yourselves.’ We can’t change the craziness of the environment, but we can relentlessly explain ourselves.”

She said this would help improve the public’s “news literacy”, which she said had become vital in an era of fake news, clickbait and alternative facts. Sullivan warned that this was become more important with the increased use of artificial intelligence.

She explained: “I have found myself on relatively rare occasions sharing something on social media that turned out to be wrong. This is going to become more and more of a problem as we enter the world of AI, of deepfakes and all of the stuff that looks like journalism but isn’t.”


Sullivan continued: “We need to take on subjects that really matter, for example climate change, and make them compelling.”

She also expressed alarm at the decline of local journalism. She said that local papers were closing at the rate of two a week in the US. Sullivan’s first job in journalism was as an intern on Buffalo News in New York. She went on to become the newspaper’s first female editor.

She said: “When I became editor, we had a newsroom of 200 people and I thought we should be larger. Now, that newsroom is down to 50 people and that is typical across the country.”

Sullivan served as the New York Times’s public editor, its ombudsman position, from 2012-16. She said the paper’s decision to scrap the post in 2017 was “very unfortunate,” adding: “When there’s no ombudsman, there’s no recourse.”

– first published in The Guardian