I like the new Guiding Principles for the Journalist, spelled out in the opening chapter of The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century.
The overall concepts of these principles reflect the same core values as Bob Steele’s Guiding Principles from about 20 years ago, but also reflect the need to update journalism ethics. Bob’s principles were organized around these three themes:
- Minimizing harm
The new principles note the value of independence, but recognize the complexity of today’s journalism and give excellent advice on being transparent about connections that may influence our content. In my October suggestions for the Guiding Principles, I merged independence and transparency into one section, so I’m pleased with this change. The new principles still call on journalists to minimize harm, but do so in the broader context of guidance about our relationships to the communities we serve. As a frequent advocate of community engagement, I am delighted to see it recognized as a core principle of journalism.
My primary disappointment in reading through the principles was their failure to explicitly address the ethics of linking. The transparency section generally calls on journalists to show their work and “explain” their sources, but in an apparent effort to avoid mentioning specific platforms in the principles, the authors stopped short of directly addressing a significant issue on which many journalists are either lazy or resistant.
More on that as I go through the principles, which generally are excellent and helpful.
Here’s the first section of the principles:
1. Seek truth and report it as fully as possible
- Be vigorous in your pursuit of accuracy.
- Be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
- Give voice to the voiceless; document the unseen.
- Hold the powerful accountable, especially those who hold power over free speech and expression.
- Be accountable.
I like these principles a lot. They most closely follow Bob’s principles from the early 1990s. My only suggestions would be additions (offered with acknowledgment that brevity should be a goal in such principles):
- Don’t confuse balance with truthfulness; reporting the truth requires verifying facts and debunking falsehoods, not reporting them as equivalent.
- Report facts in truthful context.
- Accept the responsibility to follow stories as they evolve and truths change or notions regarded as truthful lose credibility.
I suppose I feel most strongly about that first bullet. These principles should have addressed the faux-balance plague of he-said-she-said journalism.
Here’s the transparency section:
2. Be transparent.
- Show how the reporting was done and why people should believe it. Explain your sources, evidence and the choices you made. Reveal what you cannot know. Make intellectual honesty your guide and humility (rather than false omniscience) your asset.
- Clearly articulate your journalistic approach, whether you strive for independence or approach information from a political or philosophical point of view. Describe how your point of view impacts the information you report, including how you select the topics you cover and sources that inform your work.
- Acknowledge mistakes and errors, correct them quickly and in a way that encourages people who consumed the faulty information to know the truth.
I especially like the shot at “false omniscience” here. That notion has damaged journalism for too long.
I presume Kelly and Tom think that linking is covered in their call to “show how the reporting was done” and “explain your sources.” And I’ll agree that linking is an important way to do both. But I think journalism suffers from a combination of reluctance to link to external sources (especially competitors), print-first content-management systems that make linking difficult and journalists who don’t understand why linking is good journalism. The Guiding Principles should explicitly tell journalists to link so users can see our work and click through for greater depth and context.
The first bullet above is one of the best reasons I can think of for beat blogs. I don’t think the explanation Kelly and Tom suggest needs to be in every story, and often, “in an interview” or “in a press release” will be enough explanation. But some stories and situations demand more, and I do think we should generally provide explanation for people wanting to know more about our journalism, and beat blogs and editor blogs are a great way to do this.
This section differs significantly from Bob’s section on independence. I wish it had acknowledged the importance of revealing and minimizing financial influence, which I think is as serious a threat to journalistic integrity as political influence. And I think the principles should address journalists’ responsibility to identify ourselves. I’d add these principles:
- Attribute information specifically to your sources on all platforms, including links in digital content.
- Avoid or disclose business relationships that could influence or appear to influence your work.
- Grant confidentiality to sources rarely and only with compelling reasons, such as protecting the privacy of crime victims or protecting the identity of whistleblowers. Avoid granting confidentiality to the powerful and to people voicing opinions. Seek documentation of the claims of people speaking in confidence and explain why you granted confidentiality.
- Except in rare cases such as consumer reporting or restaurant review where identification as a journalist would give you false impressions, journalists should identify themselves in dealings with sources and the public, including in social media profiles.
I also wish these principles had retained this point from Bob’s section on independence: “Guard vigorously the essential stewardship role a free press plays in an open society.” Maybe it belongs in the community section, rather than under transparency, but the principles should continue to recognize the journalist’s obligation to fight for openness and First Amendment issues.
Here’s the community section:
3. Engage community as an end, rather than a means.
- Make an ongoing effort to understand the needs of the community you seek to serve and create robust mechanisms to allow members of your community to communicate with you and one another.
- Seek out and disseminate competing perspectives without being unduly influenced by those who would use their power or position counter to the public interest.
- Recognize that good ethical decisions require individual responsibility enriched by collaboration.
- Seek publishing alternatives that minimize the harm that results from your actions and be compassionate and empathetic toward those affected by your work.
- Allow and encourage members of the community to self-inform. Make journalism a continuing dialogue in which everyone can responsibly take part and be informed.
That third bullet might be the most artfully worded sentence in the principles. And I should acknowledge that the final bullet also applies to linking; links help people self-inform. I’d describe the principles as pro-linking. I just wish they had been more explicit.
I also want to comment on the opening of the chapter on the guiding principles. Kelly and Tom wrote:
When people discuss ethics in journalism, the conversation tends to get stuck between two polar impulses: to cling to tradition so tightly that we resist progress, on the one hand, and to throw away the most important values in journalism and charge blindly ahead thinking everything has changed on the other. We consider this a false choice.
I agree that it is a false choice, but I don’t think the conversation was accurately described.
I think most journalists who raise traditional values in discussions about ethics are not resisting progress; I think they recognize the need for progress and have valid questions we must address about how and where traditional values apply. I certainly have seen journalists resisting progress and clinging to tradition, but I think they are a minority of the traditional voices in the conversation.
And I seriously can’t remember hearing or reading any journalist who proposed throwing away the most important values in journalism and charging blindly ahead. Of course, no one would propose that in those words, but I can’t even recall a suggestion that amounted to that or anywhere close.
I’ll presume that Kelly and Tom might have heard or read such a suggestion, but that certainly is not the prevailing opposition to the traditional voice in the journalism ethics conversations I have heard and read. The authors indulged in exaggeration there, but the chapter quickly improved and I thought they did an excellent job of presenting and explaining the new guiding principles.
Bob Steele, who wrote the foreword for this book, also had an inaccurate description of the direction of modern journalism. It comes at the end of this otherwise-insightful passage:
The emergence of digital technology and the evolution of the role of journalism—including much more active participation by the public—has intensified some of the traditional ethical challenges and created new ones.
Think about the role social networks like Twitter and Facebook now play in the coverage of civil unrest in our communities and in countries around the globe. Recognize the challenges that exist for news organizations when facts, photos and audio of breaking news stories come from citizens rather than staff journalists, raising concerns about sourcing, authenticity and fairness. Consider the looser editing standards that often exist with a ‘digital first’ philosophy that emphasizes speed over verification, with content that goes public and potentially viral without effective front-end checks and balances.
My quarrel is with the passage in bold above. I’ll note that he used lower case so that he’s not talking specifically about Digital First Media. Many other companies have adopted different versions of “digital first,” and I don’t claim to know everything they emphasize. But I think I’ve written as much as anyone about the digital-first approach to journalism. And I can say emphatically that the approach — specifically the approach of Digital First Media — most certainly doesn’t emphasize speed over verification.
I doubt Bob or anyone else can find a single instance of any leading journalist espousing the digital-first approach and emphasizing speed over verification.
When I was discussing this issue with another journalist who shared Bob’s notion about the Digital First approach, he cited Mathew Ingram’s blog post, It’s not Twitter, this is just the way the news works now. But nowhere in that piece does Mathew emphasize speed over accuracy. In fact, he notes that “reporting news during a real-time event like a shooting has always been chaotic and riddled with inaccuracies.” Most important, Ingram called on journalists to “to shift their skillset from simply reporting facts to assembling and/or fact-checking them.”
I find it interesting that Kelly and Tom used the phrase “false choice” in their discussion of extremes in the conversation. I used the same phrase in addressing the notion that getting the news first and getting it right are somehow in conflict. If you don’t have it right, you don’t have it first; you don’t even have it at all.
Do digital-first journalists make errors? Sure, just like all journalists always have. But the many errors of print journalism did not mean that that philosophy emphasized deliberation over verification. Verification is difficult. It always has been. The New York Times screwed up verification big-time on its coverage of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but those errors were not the result of a cavalier approach about verification in the print-first philosophy. Neither were the Washington Post’s errors in verifying the “Jimmy’s World” tale of Janet Cooke.
Digital-first journalists need to work hard on verification. We don’t have the luxury of hours before our morning-edition deadline or the evening newscast to perform our verification, so we might make more mistakes (though I won’t concede that until someone documents it, and I am certain we are faster and more transparent in correcting). But even if we do make more mistakes, we emphasize verification.
I sent a draft of this post to Bob for his feedback and he responded (I also send a draft to Kelly and Tom and will add any responses they might send):
I’m not going to dig through my files to ‘find [that] single instance of any leading journalist espousing a digital-first approach and emphasizing speed over verification,’ but my memory sure does detect some phone calls and emails I’ve received in recent years from reporters, editors and producers who were struggling with this speed/verification equation and who were grappling with errors made. And my memory bank includes mental snapshots of news stories with information that turned out to be unverified and wrong. Granted, there are many reasons why stories can be wrong, and there have always been inaccurate, inauthentic and unfair stories well before the role of digital …
Perhaps I used the word ‘philosophy’ too loosely when I wrote ‘a “digital first” philosophy…’. While I do think there is a belief — and even a mandate — at some organizations to disseminate stories digitally as fast as possible that can trump quality editing and proper verification, maybe the words ‘practice’ or ‘approach’ would be milder. But I’m not sure milder is ideal when we are talking about threats to the core values of journalism and the erosion of ethical standards.
My criticism about linking and these two passages and my other suggestions here should not obscure my view that these guiding principles are a huge step forward in providing guidance for journalists. I presume and hope that these principles will underscore to SPJ’s ethics committee that the Code of Ethics needs more than fine-tuning.
I also should note that my disappointments are only about omissions. I find no significant issue with what Kelly and Tom said in the principles themselves. They did an excellent job. And I do recognize the value of brevity in principles such as these.
Most important, as the book notes, New Ethics is just part of an important (and overdue) discussion in journalism about ethics and our need to maintain and teach high standards. I can think of at least three other huge, collaborative contributions to this discussion:
- Telling the Truth and Nothing But, an ebook written earlier this year by representatives of a coalition of journalism organizations, responding to an outbreak of plagiarism and fabrication cases. I wrote a chapter on linking for that book.
- The Society of Professional Journalists is reconsidering its Code of Ethics, which also dates from the ’90s. I’m pleased that Kelly will be involved in that effort, and I hope SPJ will address some of the issues she and Tom didn’t.
- The European Journalism Centre is working on a Verification Handbook (my chapter is due next week).
- Am I overlooking others?
On top of that, ethics are a frequent topic of discussion on this blog, Craig Silverman’s, Kelly’s, Josh Stearns’ Verification Junkie and, I’m sure, others. (Feel free to add to my list.) Ethics are also a frequent discussion at journalism conferences and seminars. I am pleased with the robust and thoughtful discussion of what our standards should be as journalism evolves and as increasing numbers of non-professional journalists practice journalism either regularly or as news happens around them.
These new Guiding Principles are one of the most important contributions to this discussion, maybe the most important. I won’t let my wish for more distract me from appreciation for that.
After the opening chapter on the guiding principles, New Ethics continues with 15 chapters by different authors. I’m still reading those chapters and I will blog later on some of them.
Disclosures: I participated a Poynter event in New York last October that was part of the process of developing the new Guiding Principles for the Journalist. Following that discussion, I blogged my suggestions for the new principles. I know Kelly, Tom and Bob, and I worked with Kelly on several ethics seminars back in my API days (which were long before Tom came to API). I should acknowledge that the book has been out a few weeks and I have been slow in commenting on it. I blame travel and work responsibilities.
Update: Kelly McBride provided the following response by email:
Overall I feel like you were kind and generous in your assessment of the book. I appreciated that. …
As for linking, perhaps we could have given that particular practice more attention, because it is a huge tool for achieving transparency. This book is about principles and to that end we didn’t specifically address many tools at all. And even when we did (fact-checking) we really talked about them as principles.
That said, I think your criticism is fair and complete.
And mostly I appreciate that you see the work in the book as worthy of your time and energy. That means a lot to me.
I responded in an email: “I see linking as a principle (lots of newsrooms don’t link to competitors as a matter of principle), more than a tool. But I do see room for different views on that.” Then Kelly added:
It’s very difficult, in the midst of all the disruption and transformation, to figure out which of the new practices and procedures in journalism are permanent and which are more etherial and therefore likely to float away in a few years. While I don’t think linking will go anywhere soon, I can’t be certain, especially as devices like Google Glass become mainstream. It could that be that we will invent a new tool for connecting content that will take the place of linking. When that happens, I believe the principle of transparency and the importance of intellectual honesty will remain as guides that help us understand why it’s important to show the audience what influenced you and how you arrived at your conclusions.