Ranking the News Agencies

Those of us who have cause to dislike Time Magazine now also have cause to snicker. The University of Maryland’s International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (that’s a mouthful) has just released a study of how “global media outlets” fare when rated on transparency. As their introduction puts it,

The Libby, Enron and Arthur Andersen cases have all put the issue of “transparency” in the forefront of the news. But how transparent are the media themselves? How candid are they about how they cover the news? How willing are the media to make their reporting and editing standards public?

The answer, it appears, is “not very.” Out of twenty-five major websites, fewer than half published public corrections to mistaken stories, and only seven made more than a token effort to state their policies on journalistic ethics. Each of the twenty-five news outlets was scored in five categories, between “excellent” and “not acceptable,” to compute an overall numerical score between 0 and 4. The Guardian led the pack with 3.8, followed closely by the New York Times at 3.4. Sky News is the worst, summarized verbally as flat-out “not acceptable” with a numeric ranking of 0.4.

And guess what publication Sky News just barely edged out?

Time, with a rating of 0.6.

To quote the study’s conclusions,

The recent Libby case dramatically illustrated not only the hubris of Washington power politics, but the lack of commitment of mainstream media to journalistic transparency. “Here’s the conflict in such situations,” wrote reporter Sydney Schanberg, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the fall of Cambodia. “The press calls for transparency by government, corporations, and everyone else. But here the reporters reject transparency for themselves, and yet they say they are practicing good journalism. The public needs a fuller explanation, and that can only come from the reporters themselves.”

Questions of journalistic transparency gain a certain poignancy after one sees deranged attacks on Rachel Carson’s memory, for example. And while that case has a particularly strong emotional resonance, it’s of a piece with bad reporting about exploring Mars, glossy magazines fostering pseudoscience and uncritical acceptance of creationist op-eds.

(Tip o’ the fedora to Paul McLeary at the Columbia Journalism Review.)

UPDATE (14 June 2007): unfortunately, they didn’t rank the news sites by number of headlines with double meanings. The BBC and Forbes report that, for example, “Wal-Mart to sell Dell computers” — but doesn’t Dell already have enough to get by?