This continues a series on advice for new top editors in Digital First Media newsrooms.
Journalism ethics should be a topic of frequent discussions in a Digital First newsroom. I’ve already mentioned the importance of stressing and upholding accuracy in your newsroom. The editor needs to make standards clear to the staff. Even if you have a written ethics policy, your newsroom ethics need to be shaped by frequent discussions that the editor leads, joins, stimulates and guides.
I have frequently criticized newsroom social-media policies for being rooted too often in fear and ignorance. Editors who aren’t using social tools much, if any, dictate rules based on their fears that someone on their staff is going to make bad decisions.
Your staff is going to make better decisions in using social media if they’ve discussed with you (or with their direct editors, or, ideally both) how they should use social media: What’s the appropriate place (if any) for opinion in their social media use; how much they should or should not mix personal and professional social media use. You can hear their what-ifs and respond before something becomes a problem. If you’re still learning social media yourself (and we all are), discussing the ethical issues with staff members more experienced in social media use will advance your education.
Where ethical principles remain unchanged, your staff is still applying those principles in unfamiliar circumstances, so you should lead the discussion of how to apply those principles in day-to-day practice. For instance, your principles regarding confidential sources may not have changed. But you might discuss whether a reporter should be Facebook friends with a confidential source (or should at least discuss with the source whether that’s acceptable). You might discuss what electronic communications might show up on a source’s work computer or cell phone and be something to avoid, unless the source agrees.
To the extent that technology and changes in the news business change journalism ethics, you want to be discussing those changes with your staff regularly, so they understand the values you want to uphold in your newsroom. For instance, you may be rethinking the traditional notion of objectivity, so you should be leading newsroom discussions about when and where it might be appropriate for staff members to express opinions.
One significant way that I think technology has changed ethics is that linking has changed how we can and should attribute. I recommend reading my post on a show-your-work culture and leading such a culture change in your newsroom.
These ethics discussions need to be a mix of spoken and written discussions in staff meetings, smaller conversations and emails to the staff or Google docs shared with the staff. If an important topic comes up in the industry or in your staff, you might want to call an all-hands staff meeting and discuss it in person with as many staff members as possible (and follow up in writing to the full staff, since some people invariably miss even an all-hands meeting). But address the routine daily ethics decisions in your routine daily meetings and in informal daily conversations with staff (following up in writing to the individuals and/or the whole staff as needed).
In addition to providing guidance on the individual ethical questions, regular conversations about ethics in your newsroom underscore your commitment to ethical journalism.
If your newsroom has a serious breach of ethics, confer with your human resources department about how public you can be with the community and the newsroom about the offense and about your standards for staff behavior. You might consider an explicit statement in your employee handbook and/or ethics policy, stating that serious ethical violations such as plagiarism or fabrication will be explained in detail to the community.
Speaking of plagiarism and fabrication, be sure that you and your staff read Telling the Truth and Nothing But, the free ebook produced earlier this year by a committee (including me) representing a broad range of journalism groups. The book has advice for newsrooms and individual journalists on best practices to detect and prevent plagiarism and fabrication (and respond to offenses when they occur). The blog post on linking that I mentioned above comes from my contribution to the book.
As I explained in the post, I consider linking to be an important matter of journalism ethics today: the best form of attribution, an excellent defense against plagiarism and fabrication and a way to provide depth and context.
What have you (or an editor you worked for) done to set high ethical standards for your newsroom?
Jill Geisler’s What Great Bosses Know about Ethics Traps
Earlier posts with advice for editors
Here are topics I am planning on covering in this series (the order is tentative). What other topics should I cover?
- The power of questions
- Respecting authorship
- Face-to-face communication
- Personal life
- Time management
- Developing new leaders
- The editor’s blog
- Role models
The posts probably will run daily Monday-Friday for the next few weeks. If you’re another Digital First editor (or a leader or former leader in another organization) and would like to propose a guest post as part of the series, email me at sbuttry (at) digitalfirstmedia (dot) com and we’ll discuss. I’m not interested in a post of general leadership tips. I’d rather have a post on a particular leadership topic. Feel free to suggest a post that might address a topic I’ve already covered, but from a different perspective. I welcome posts that disagree with my advice. I will invite a few editors I respect to write posts.