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Is it possible to have too much transparency in journalism?

It's not standard operating procedure for news organizations to release full transcripts of their interviews. But it could be a useful practice, particularly for contentious interviews, according to the Poynter Institute's Al Thompkins.

In an unusual move, U.S. news outlets published full transcripts of interviews with James Comey

ABC News and MSNBC's decisions to release transcripts of interviews with former FBI director James Comey may have been motivated by a desire for transparency — and to fend off criticism. (Ralph Alswang/ABC/Associated Press)

Former FBI Director James Comey was doing the rounds of TV studios this week to promote his new book, A Higher Loyalty. First up was ABC News and an interview with George Stephanopoulos that lasted nearly five hours.

What viewers saw, though, was a heavily edited, hour-long version of that conversation. In television terms, it was still an eternity. But those wondering what might have been left out could satiate their curiosity, line by line, after ABC News opted to release the transcript of the full interview online.

Clearly, the interest was there. ABC News president James Goldston told the Associated Press the move was all in the name of transparency. But it also became the most popular item on the news organization's website.

And ABC News may have started a trend, at least as far as Comey is concerned. Rachel Maddow of MSNBC got her interview with Comey on Thursday night, the transcript of which was "just as importantly" posted on MSNBC's website.

All of this is not normal procedure for a news organization.

"One reason we watch television is so you can do the work of cutting it down and making sense of it," said Al Tompkins, a broadcast news specialist with the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based non-profit school for journalists.

ABC News releases full transcript of interview with James Comey. Is there such a thing as too much transparency? Watch The Investigators Saturdays at 9:30 pm ET and Sundays at 5:30 pm ET on CBC News Network. 3:26

Speaking this week on The Investigators with Diana Swain, Tompkins said he doesn't think releasing the entire transcripts of interviews will become a widespread practice "but for truly contentious interviews, it could be useful."

  • Watch the full interview with Al Tompkins on The Investigators, Saturday at 9:30 p.m. ET and Sunday at 5:30 p.m. ET on CBC News Network.

"It might also force us as journalists, as people who make our living talking and asking questions, to more carefully craft our questions, to think about what we're asking and how we ask it. That's fair," he said. 

"I think that if we're going to hold people up for scrutiny for the way they answer questions, maybe we ought to be held up to more scrutiny for the way we ask them."

But in the age of so-called fake news, is the release of full transcripts happening because journalists feel compelled to prove their credibility? Or to defend themselves from criticism for what did make it to air? Goldston said his organization has nothing to hide but admitted self-defence played a part.

"It could prevent people from asking 'Why didn't you ask this,' when we knew we had asked the question."

For Tompkins, some viewers will just never be convinced.

"If you don't want to trust me, there's no amount of disclosure that's going to help you do that. If you're not open to some truth, I really can't help you with that," he said. "Transparency isn't going to solve the problem of people who absolutely don't want it, they're looking for what they agree with."

About the Author

Owen Leitch

Senior Producer

Owen Leitch is the Toronto-based senior producer of The Investigators with Diana Swain.