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Transparency and noir journalism

David Eaves makes a crucial point in a post inspired by Clay Shirky‘s and Steven Johnson‘s recent brilliant postings about the future of journalism. Pardon me if I rephrase David’s point, and possibly shade it a little differently.

The mythic figure of the journalist is still that of the young Woodward and Bernstein. They are detectives in a noir world where everyone — and, most important, every institution — has a secret. The journalist is the lone truth teller, forcing the secrets out into the light. The institutions keep as much secret as they can because they have selfish interests to protect. The journalist, on the other hand, has no interests other than the truth. Thus he (and in the myth, the journalist is a man) is committed to and guided by objectivity: seeing things as they are, untainted by self-interest.

That’s a valuable myth so long as institutions are built on the assumption of secrecy. But imagine a world of perfect institutional transparency. If all is light, the noir journalist is a peeping tom at a nudist colony.

Now, we are not going to have a world of perfect transparency. But the defaults may be flipping from need-to-know to need-to-hide. Customers, clients and citizens already casually betray most of what institutions used to keep hidden, from the real-world mileage of cars to the spread of protests in totalitarian countries. Laws and norms are changing, bringing institutions to disclose more on their own.

Will this bring about a fundamental change in the practice of journalism? By itself, probably not. Much of traditional journalism already assumes transparency in business, government, and, yes, sports. Greater transparency will give current journalists more to report on. But there will always be people and institutions with dark secrets, so we will always need noir journalists.

But it’s certainly not yet settled what the new mythic journalist will be like or how we will support our old noir types.

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