Transparency is viewed by many as the solution to several of the world’s problems. Indeed a common explanation for disputes is that they result from an imbalance of information between the two sides. If we could have more transparency, some say, than we would all have the same facts and a lot of these disagreements would melt away. But having information and being able to use that information effectively are two separate issues. The first is about access which is certainly being expanded greatly with search engines and the internet. The second issue, however, is about education, context and perspective which transparency doesn’t address. Being able to interpret facts and perform critical analysis is a learned skill that a great many people don’t have. In the movie “A Few Good Men”, Jack Nicholson’s renegade soldier on the witness stand responds to Tom Cruise, the military prosecutor, who asked the witness to “tell the truth”. Nicholson’s answer: “You can’t handle the truth”. He was referring, of course, to the fact that no person without battle experience can understand what really happens on the front lines. That lack of experience or lack of education in battle, or in life, can be exploited. And a large industry exists to take advantage of the “opportunities” which that lack makes possible. Advertising, marketing, public relations all exist to “help” those without the interest and/or ability to understand the subtleties of political issues, product comparisons and many other things in life. It’s a lage force in our society. It can change elections, move products and get generals fired.
As a result, transparency is a very sharp double edged sword. Although it sounds simple and “honest” to “do the right thing”, it requires enormous delicacy and skill to describe events or actions in a way that can be understood objectively by all. Emotional baggage colors our understanding of all news and information. And, of course, “news people” are trained to put a spin on things. They can interpret in imaginative ways and generally create a news item out of something that fits the ideology of what they are trying to promote. Whether that is distortion or objective reporting may depend upon the politics of the reader as well as the writer. “Transparency” today may better refer to the fact that it is much more difficult to keep anything secret. Ubiquitous camera phones document events that governments and businesses would have rather kept private. With a bit of creativity they can also be used to mislead and misinform. These are collaborations of a different sort…no less complex than truly newsworthy ones, but frequently with a self serving goal in mind.
A crisis can create interesting dynamics for public and private collaborations. When BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, then collapsed and began gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the disaster quickly escalated into one of the worst environmental accidents in history. As the company worked feverishly to plug the gusher and clean up the oil spreading around the Gulf, a “Deepwater Horizon Response” Facebook page was established, garnering tens of thousands of members within weeks. While becoming a member of such a group usually means you are a “fan” or “friend”, the Deepwater Horizon Response page featured comments from more people who were incensed by the spill as “supporters” of BP. While it may have seemed like a risky strategy, BP may have gained points for creating a public forum, and for allowing both “pro” and “con” participants. And it let BP know how people were responding to the myriad of news from many sources. Transparency is often regarded as extremely risky, but in this new age of camera phones and social media, secrecy may be much riskier. Don’t forget, though, it’s not what you do that counts so much as how you do it.