I’m interested in how journalists are really important to the business of politics. Journalists don’t like to think of themselves as political actors, but they most definitely are. Almost everything that I have written and researched, ultimately revolves around this point at some level.
In my publication The Ambiguous Definition of Open Government: Parliamentarians, Journalists and Bloggers Define Open Government In Accordance With Their Interests, my colleague Geoge Wootten and I were interested in the commonly evoked concept of “open government”. Journalists and politicians, especially opposition politicians, seem to really like the concept, but it involved a lot of different concrete promises: better freedom of information laws and more participation in decision-making, for example. Then, it always seemed like politicians who promise open government would somehow renege on this pledge.
To explain this observation, we investigated if journalists and politicians defined the concept of “open government” differently. So, with the help of our star research assistant Karly Rath (graduate of Laurier’s Digital Media and Journalism program, now working at LSPIRG), we established a database of journalists, parliamentarians and bloggers across Canada. We devised a survey where we asked them to rank different definitions of open government. Lo and behold, we found:
The hardest thing about this project was learning how to treat ranked survey responses. We asked respondents to rank definitions of open government from most favoured to least favoured. Usually survey responses deal with a form of rating, where you ask people to rate their level of agreement with a statement (e.g. strongly agree to strongly disagree). Almost all social scientific statistical methodology assumes the data are rated, not ranked. Going into the survey design, I never assumed it would make a difference. I was a little surprised when I got the data back and I realized it required a completely new methodology! Luckily, there was some niche work done on this precise problem and scholars at Stanford University and the University of Waterloo were really helpful in walking us through how to handle statistics for rating data.
The key lesson that people need to take from our research is: When a party wins an election promising more “open government”, it will be unclear what that means and that has the potential of increasing cynicism about politicians over-promising and under-delivering because there is no coherent definition of open government. It’s not a defined, specific thing. People can have constructive debates about taxes and spending going up and down, or about criminalizing different behaviours. Open government is a buzzword that has widely shared positive associations and that journalists and parliamentarians in particular, define it in ways that suit their interests. So it is hard to have a constructive debate about something that has multiple definitions that no one can agree on.
I hope that journalists will learn that open government can mean different things and that politics can be “open” in ways other than giving journalists unfettered access to information and sources.
The public interest might be just as well served by journalists facilitating an open debate about competing policy alternatives as they are by journalist ferreting out secret documents and sources.
Honestly, more often than not I am underwhelmed every time a journalist publishes a story based on access to information requests. What they find is often uninformative and harmless, but it is trumpeted by journalists because they have exposed secret information.
I also hope citizens will learn to be a little suspicious of politicians making grand promises of “open government.” There is a reason politicians like to make these promises – they sound good and they are cheap. “Open government” is a hard promise to implement.
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