FRONTLINE, PBS’s investigative documentary series, is making its source material more accessible to the public by posting online full-length interviews that reveal insight and analysis beyond what appears in the films.
Producers have posted video and transcripts from dozens of interviews as part of an initiative called the FRONTLINE Transparency Project. These materials are interactive and shareable. In some cases, viewers can click on the transcript to watch how a particular interview sequence was edited in the film. Transcripts have also been annotated with links to supplemental materials. And viewers can share direct links to quotes within the transcripts by highlighting the text.
“Transparency has been a vital but elusive value in journalism," FRONTLINE Executive Producer Raney Aronson-Rath told PBS's public editor in explaining why she took on this project. "We're experimenting with ways to strengthen the credibility of journalism and restore trust in independent news media—a task that seems especially urgent with the rise of 'fake news' and the declines of public confidence in sources of information.”
The PBS Editorial Standards define transparency as “the principle that content should be produced in a way that allows the audience to evaluate the credibility of the work and determine for themselves whether it is trustworthy. Producers must be open with the audience—to the extent practical—about how the work was done.”
FRONTLINE first posted an interactive collection of interview videos and transcripts in 2017 with the two-hour documentary “Putin’s Revenge.” For that film, FRONTLINE made more than 70 hours of interview footage available to the public. The interviews from “Putin’s Revenge” have been viewed more than four million times, Aronson-Rath said during a 2019 PBS webinar on transparency.
Since then, FRONTLINE has expanded the Transparency Project to eight other films, including the 2021 film "America After 9/11," which examines the consequences of the U.S. response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Thirty-five interviews that appear in the film can be explored in full either by video or text.
FRONTLINE also recently provided the public with access to more than 100 hours of interviews used in the making of "The Choice 2020" about the recent presidential election. The transcripts and videos include interviews with journalists, politicians, and people close to Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
Transparency is among the most important factors for determining whether a media organization is considered trustworthy, according to a 2018 Gallup/Knight Foundation survey. Ninety-four percent of respondents said it was either important or very important for a media organization to share information about funding, how it makes decisions about what it reports, and where it gets information for stories.
A 2020 Pew Research Center study found that a majority of Americans believe news organizations are insufficiently transparent about various practices, including how they produce their stories.
FRONTLINE has long had a culture of sharing its work, Aronson-Rath said during the PBS webinar. In the early days of the internet, she explained, FRONTLINE started posting transcripts. Now producers are using all of the digital tools available to not only continue but expand on that tradition by including the video component.
“I think that step forward means that a lot of the dreams that we had of being truly transparent are now being realized in a way that we could have never imagined 20 years ago,” she said.
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