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NYT’s “Caliphate”: transparency as a performance

The podcast shows that performative transparency helps assert journalistic authority – but also evade accountability

In a sense, journalism is more transparent than ever. New technologies and business models encourage publishers to reveal more of what happens behind the scenes – be it to engage subscribers or showcase the process and increase trust. But the experience of “Caliphate”, an NYT podcast, shows how that transparency can be an empty promise.

Indeed, a new study shows how transparency can be part of “metajournalistic performance,” a “[strategic weapon] to stake a claim to journalistic authority.” In other words, transparency about the reporting process becomes an important journalistic tool itself.

That’s the preface of a research paper by Canadian researchers Gabriela Perdomo and Philippe Rodrigues-Rouleau. The article titled “Transparency as metajournalistic performance” looks at how NYT used transparency to assert journalistic authority in their award-winning, now-controversial podcast – and critiques the limitations of “an aggressive weaponization of transparency.”

The story of “Caliphate”

The 2018 podcast “Caliphate” tells the story of ISIS through the eyes of Pakistani-Canadian Shehroze Chaudhry, who allegedly took part in terrorist activities in the Middle East. The podcast was hosted by investigative reporter Rukmini Callimachi.

Caliphate podcast on Apple podcasts

“Caliphate” got some heavyweight support from “The Daily”. It was promoted and produced by the team behind NYT’s top podcast (and one of the most popular globally). 

The show met with a positive reception. It won several awards, including the Peabody Award and the Overseas Press Club of America award. Callimachi’s reporting on ISIS, which included the podcast, was a 2019 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

However, information that surfaced two years later revealed some serious flaws in the reporting, and part of the story proved false. Chaudhry’s account seems to have been falsified, and he was arrested in Canada for lying about his terrorist activities.

The paper retracted part of its reporting and said the podcast “did not meet the standards for Times journalism.” The Overseas Press Club rescinded its award, while NYT returned the Pebody. Rukmini Callimachi was reassigned to another beat, and Andy Mills, the key producer behind “Caliphate”, left The New York Times.

This is not the first case of stories turning out to be misreported or fabricated. What makes “Caliphate” stand out is the level of transparency around the creation of the story itself.

More from The Fix: Daily news podcasts are now in the league of mainstream news products 

How “Caliphate” used – and “weaponized” – transparency

Although the push towards transparency in journalism is not new, narrative podcasts are particularly conducive to this trend. For example, NYT’s “The Daily” and other prominent podcasts routinely feature interviews between journalists and bits of behind-the-scenes work.

As Perdomo and Rodrigues-Rouleau write, “Caliphate” goes further to employ transparency as it “alternates between typical journalistic reporting and segments of transparency where backstage details of the investigation are revealed, notably through conversations between Callimachi and her producer Andy Mills.”

As the researchers assert, the podcast “strategically weaponizes transparency to stake a claim to journalistic authority”. The goal is to get the audience to recognize the “epistemic authority” of NYT and its reporters to tell a story.

(According to the authors, their analysis was conducted before the controversy around “Caliphate’s” accuracy, but the scandal fits neatly in the model they offer).

The New York Times page for the Caliphate podcast

Perdomo and Rodrigues-Rouleau identify three categories of transparency performance in “Caliphate.”

  • Revealing the journalistic process.” Within this category, the show’s creators describe the journalistic work that went into its creation, such as the process of gathering and analysing documents. It removes the veil behind production mechanics, such as sound checks. The podcast thus “advertises the alleged hard work and methodological rigour behind the investigation”.
  • Constructing the reporter’s persona.” This category includes “moments when Callimachi is showing authority, courage, empathy, expertise and judgement or revealing personal details,” thus elevating the level of her personal authority on the topic.
  • Reaffirming the journalistic culture.” Here, Callimachi reinforces journalistic principles, which includes “out-loud reflections about the purpose of reporting, justifications of her actions, acknowledgements of ethical dilemmas, or reassertions of the value of her judgement and normative imperatives.”

The case for and against “Caliphate”-type transparency

This transparency drive has both its advantages and flaws. One the one side, the types of transparency manifested in “Caliphate” help introduce the audience to the journalistic process. It’s a way to establish journalistic authority. 

This authority is critically needed in the age when media outlets have lost their monopoly, ceding ground to social media players and other ways of distributing information that typically have fewer checks for trustworthiness.

At the same time, as Perdomo and Rodrigues-Rouleau assert, in this case the performative transparency was vertical rather than horizontal. In other words, it’s not about the public’s participation in the journalistic process as about “re-establishing boundaries between the journalistic field and its audiences… about creating a glass barrier through which audiences can admire – but not meddle in – the journalistic process.”

As a result, as the scandal around “Caliphate” demonstrates, “transparency can be deceiving, since journalists decide what elements of their process they reveal or conceal”. 

More from The Fix: Can we trust (the news) again?

Photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash

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