“TAO Of Journalism” Project Wants to Crowdsource Ethics, Increase Transparency

Transparency, Accountability, Openness. As of late, they’re strong buzzwords in the journalistic community (I just wrote about them Friday), but for a good reason. As we start to tap into public data, reach into our communities, and thrive on a minute-by-minute news cycle, these concepts are more important than ever. And now there’s a project from the Washington News Council to raise awareness on the issue: TAO of Journalism.

After two years of dancing around the idea, John Hamer of the Washington News Council informally launched TAO of Journalism in January 2010, which has slowly been gaining traction around the following pledge since then:

A promise to your audience that you will be Transparent about who you are, Accountable for your mistakes, and Open to other points of view.

Organizations, individuals, bloggers — anyone committing acts of journalism — are free to take the pledge, and display the TAO of Journalism seal  (a yin-yang looking icon) on their websites as a symbol of promised transparency, accountability and openness.

So far, about three dozen people and organizations have taken the pledge. Hamer said via an email interview that the TAO hasn’t yet “gone viral.”

A move away from licensing and control

“As you know, journalists are traditionally reluctant to have any kind of outside oversight,” Hamer said. “Some may see this as a way of regulating what they do — when it’s really just a way to hold them publicly accountable for their performance and ethics.”

In fact, control is the opposite of what the TAO of Journalism is about. Hamer described the organization as “purely voluntary” and “more of an honor system.”

“We don’t plan to ‘police’ the TAO seal, but rather to let their readers, viewers and listeners do that,” Hamer said.

Crowdsourcing ethics

Although the Washington News Council doesn’t plan to be in charge of ensuring that those who display the seal are following the TAO mantra, there will be a policy of self-governing — which I absolutely love — within the TAO community.

The website has a “Sealbreakers” page that allows members of the community to submit any concerns about misuse of the seal.

“If we get several reports of someone who displays the seal NOT being transparent, accountable and open, we will ask them to stop using the seal,” Hamer said.

Repeated violations will be peer-reviewed by a group of other TAO pledgers, who would determine if permission to use the TAO seal should be revoked.

Popular amongst the young crowd

Kathy Schrier, executive director of the Washington Journalism Education Association, said the pledge resonates with students.

“The friction between student journalists and public school officials puts the student press under a constant threat of censorship — even censorship of legally protected speech,” Schrier said. “As student journalists and their advisers seek ways to build trust with school administrators, the idea of a public proclamation to practice ethical and responsible journalism through taking the TAO of Journalism Pledge, has struck a chord with student media groups.”

In November, 2010, the  JEA endorsed the TAO of Journalism concept at a national level, and the national Student Press Rights Commission, promoted a “National TAO of Journalism Sign-up Day” as part of National Scholastic Journalism Week.

Another group of high school journalism students took the pledge at the Journalism Education Association / National Scholastic Press Association Conference in Anaheim from April 15-17.

But really, they’re still getting the word out about their mission through Facebook, Twitter and word of mouth.

Who’s doing it right?

I asked Hamer to specifically point to those organizations he’s interacted with who are doing the TAO of Journalism correctly. He noted the following:

Each of these organizations have displayed the TAO of Journalism seal on their “about” pages. A full directory of TAO Pledgers (which is mostly up-to-date) can be accessed on the website.

Expansion isn’t yet on the horizon

For those of you in the Pacific Northwest, a meetup will be held tonight, May 2 from 6-7:30 p.m at Pyramid Alehouse. where the goal is to “help nudge the idea further along.”

During our correspondence, I asked Hamer if he had thought of using a Hacks/Hackers or ONA-like model for the TAO, where individual chapters could form in cities around the nation to talk about the same concepts within their own communities.

Although that wasn’t yet on the agenda, Hamer was open to the idea: “If someone is interested, sure, why not?”

If you have any suggestions for the TAO of Journalism, would like to take the pledge, or would be interested in starting your own local chapter, you should contact The Washington News Council.