As I blogged last week, I was involved in a discussion of new guiding principles for journalism.
I’m glad that Poynter and craigconnects are leading this effort. I think that we need some new guiding principles to cover the challenges of digital journalism and recent ethical controversies. I also think Poynter’s Guiding Principles for the Journalist are a good place to start (I blogged separately about those principles).
I would encourage retaining two of the primary section headings of the current guiding principles: “Seek Truth and Report It As Fully As Possible” and “Minimize Harm.” I would revise the other one, “Act Independently,” to read: Act Transparently and Independently.
I like Craig Silverman’s blog post, Journalism ethics are rooted in humanity, not technology. The principles he lists at the end there might be better headings than I propose, but I think most or all of my suggestions would fit under those headings.
I like the brevity of the points in the Guiding Principles. In some of my proposals here, I try to achieve similar brevity. At other times, I elaborate more than the principles probably should. While I hope our discussion of these issues is extensive (and some of my extended comments are part of that discussion), we want to keep the principles themselves clear and simple wherever possible.
In a preamble to the three main sections, I propose saying something like this:
Journalism ethics are a result of thoughtful decisions, rather than arbitrary rules. When time permits, journalists facing difficult choices should discuss the situation, relevant ethical principles, alternatives and potential impact with editors and colleagues before deciding. Freelance journalists and solo entrepreneurs should develop networks of colleagues with whom they discuss ethical decisions.
Explain your ethical decisions in a blog, social media or other forum. A decision you can’t explain is a decision you should reconsider.
My other suggestions (which I propose as additions to the current points in the Guiding Principles):
Be transparent and independent
Disclose any personal interests, relationships, affiliations or experiences that might influence your journalism — or give the appearance of influence — on a particular story or in your general performance. Some good ways to handle this are with extensive general-purpose disclosure pages linked from a journalist’s byline and editor’s notes with specific stories.
Acknowledge your sources (unless you had a valid reason to grant confidentiality). Ideal attribution includes name of the journalist, name of the publication or organization and a link if you are citing material that is available online. Even when a journalist does original reporting to confirm information originally reported by others, the journalist should acknowledge the earlier reporting.
Journalists should identify sources even if the source doesn’t expect attribution, as in a press release. Our principle of transparency and attribution is an obligation to our readers and viewers, not to sources.
Journalists should be careful and diligent in acknowledging sources of information in their notes and published content. Carelessness or sloppiness do not excuse plagiarism.
Journalists and news organizations should acknowledge and correct errors. Where journalists or news organizations can identify others who have repeated an error (such as retweeting it), they should note the correction directly to those who republished the error.
Journalists should not disguise or withhold their identities in any form of communication. A rare exception would be in restaurant reviews or another form of consumer reporting where identification as a journalist would inhibit the ability to report on the experience of members of the general public.
Journalists who maintain separate personal and professional social media accounts should behave ethically in their personal accounts and should presume some members of the public might see content they post privately.
Journalists should consider whether transparency about opinions will build credibility better than a stance of neutrality. Opinions are acceptable in some journalism contexts and not in others. Journalists should discuss with their editors (or with staff they supervise) to clarify whether opinion is acceptable in a particular position.
As entrepreneurial journalists and innovative organizations seek new business models for news, journalists should discuss ways to protect the integrity of editorial content and should be transparent about revenue streams and relationships with revenue sources. The ethical need to remain free of advertiser influence should not hinder journalists from working to develop healthy business models to support and sustain independent journalism.
As organizations and individuals involved in other primary pursuits undertake journalism ventures in their areas of interest, they should disclose in detail their potential conflicts, including the source of their funding, and should seek to provide structural separation between the journalism and the funding.
While links and flexibility of space and time make disclosures easy on digital platforms, journalists and news organizations should make ethics disclosures in print and broadcast content as well.
Additions to “Seek the truth”
Journalists should use accuracy checklists to prevent errors and improve verification.
Journalists should strive to go beyond “he-said-she-said” stories that present conflicting accounts of an event or issue. The journalist’s job is to learn and report the truth in these cases.
Journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of their content. You should make every effort to confirm facts you report, not merely to attribute them.
“Who?” is an essential question for journalists to answer. Journalists should withhold names of their sources only in extreme cases for valid reasons. Protecting powerful people from accountability for their words is almost never a valid reason. Journalists granting confidentiality should seek to verify information from sources they will not name and should not publish opinions from people who are not speaking on the record. Journalists should closely and skeptically examine the motives of sources asking to speak confidentially. Even if the motives are legitimate, journalists should keep in mind that confidentiality prevents accountability.
Addition to “Minimize Harm”
If your organization has a policy not to identify survivors of sexual abuse, you should make exceptions for survivors who wish to speak on the record. (Incredibly, I once worked for a newsroom that made no exceptions, a hurtful position that treated sexual assault survivors as though they had some cause for shame.)
Journalists and news organizations should not remove content from digital archives except in extreme cases, such as for legal reasons. When people who were acquitted of criminal charges (or convicted many years ago) request removal of embarrassing but true stories, a better solution is to code those stories so they will not show to external search engines. Archives should be updated to reflect the outcomes of criminal cases or other charges of wrongdoing.
What do you suggest?
What have I overlooked here? How would you change my proposals? Which of my suggestions would you toss out?