Home » Blog » Africa (older) » Journalism, transparency and triangulation

Journalism, transparency and triangulation

A week back, at the Madrid Democracy summit, I had a dinner conversation with friends that centered on the complications of professional journalists maintaining blogs. (The conversation began with a discussion of the Boston Globe’s censure of Hiawatha Bray for political comments he made on his blog.) I argued that I wished that more journalists blogged, so I could triangulate between their “official” stories and their personal observations.

A friend participating in the conversation – who has forgotten more about journalism than I will ever know – argued that, while I was welcome to engage in such triangulation, it was unwise for me to wish it onto readers as a whole. He pointed out – correctly – that I’m a media junkie and argued that most readers aren’t willing to triangulate between a journalist’s personal statements and her reporting. Furthermore, he argued, if a journalist is behaving professionally, there’s no need to know her biases because the reader should have no reason to question whether the reporter’s perspective is coloring the story. Rather than push for more disclosure by journalists and more triangulation by “active readers”, why not just push for more responsible journalism?

I don’t really disagree with my friend’s arguments – it’s just that I’m greedy. I want professional, unbiased reporting and I want to know as much about the reporter as he or she is willing to share. I don’t want to triangulate all the time, and I’m most pleased when my triangulation reveals that a story is told fairly and well. But I really want to be able to check.

In our dinner conversation, one issue that came up was media consolidation – when every major city had multiple newspapers, most of them with a definable political bias, it was fairly easy to triangulate between various biased stories and get to a version of underlying events. To a certain extent, judicious use of Google News allows one to accomplish something similar – I found myself reading Google News closely yesterday, to see who was surprised or worried by the prospect of Wolfowitz becoming the head of the World Bank and who was not.

Unfortunately, most of the stories I’m interested in are reported by a single news source – usually the BBC, IRIN, AFP or the Christian Science Monitor. Triangulating between news sources is often hard to accomplish. Which makes me increasingly grateful for reporters who are blogging as well as reporting. In our dinner conversation, I pointed to Abraham McLaughlin of the Christian Science Monitor, who oftens blogs and reports the same trips he takes in Africa.

McLaughlin’s story and post earlier this week give a good picture of what I hope for out of the synergy of blogging and journalism. Yesterday, McLaughlin posted a story about a candidate for the Zimbabwean parliament and his struggles to campaign in such a repressive nation. The story is surprisingly hopeful – the candidate, a white farmer displaced from his land – was able to hold a rally without being arrested or having his supporters threatened. (While this hardly seems like a great victory, you’ve got to cheer any movements towards openness in Zimbabwe.)

Lest one think that McLaughlin fully buys the statement by a ZANU-PF (ruling party) member that “This election will be freer and fairer than almost any in Zimbabwe’s history – and many in Africa and the world,” McLaughlin’s blog provides a different perspective. Written a day earlier, he gives a “Harper’s Index” of the misery Zimbabweans are facing and the challenges a reporter faces reporting in the country:

  • One US cent: What a Zimbabwean $100 bill is worth after years of hyperinflation.
  • $3.9 million: My rental-car bill in Zimbabwe dollars (about US$400)
  • 10 minutes: How long it took me to count a four-inch stack of Zimbabwe $20,000 bills to pay the rental-car agency and have the clerk check my counting.
  • 1.5 million: The number of Zimbabweans – out of 12 million total – who the government admits are seriously short of food.
  • 4.8 million: An independent estimate of the actual number of Zimbabweans short of food.

  • 2: The number of people during my four-day trip who asked me to help them get out of the country.

    I’m not sure that it’s “professional” for McLaughlin to tell me about his rental car bill, or that people have asked him for help getting out of Zimbabwe. But I’m glad he did.