At the Community Reporting Alliance, there are basic standards by which we should judge ourselves — and by which others will inevitably judge us — as professional journalists.
We developed these guidelines over time, and after review of a number of codes of ethics adopted by a number of organizations. We have borrowed from materials developed by the Society to Protect Journalists (SPJ.org), the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE.org), the Poynter Institute (poynter.org), The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and from the community news organization Straus News of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. We have also relied heavily on the code of ethics spelled out by The Daily Press, Newport News, Va.
Reporting for the Community Reporting Alliance or for any CRA program is to be fair, objective and impartial. We must not show preconceived opinions or judgements; we should come to each story with a conscious detachment about the issues involved. Thus we can observe and report without reference to our own experiences, or indulgences of our particular sympathies.
Equally important is the APPEARANCE of impartiality. We are all expected to use good judgment and conduct in our outside activities so that no one — management, community leaders, readers or a political or professional critic of this organization — has any grounds for raising suspicion that any of us has an axe to grind or came to the story with a vested interest in its outcome.
It is not enough to act with honest motives, or to be a "professional journalist" while covering a story in which we may have a particular interest. And, inevitably, there will be such an event which we might consider covering. We are to inform the editor or publisher of the potential conflict and he or she will decide whether we can continue to cover the story and if the potential conflict ought to be disclosed to the public.
Reporters are members of the community and we are encouraged to take part in civic and community organizations. But good sense dictates that we steer clear of any group or activity that seeks to influence the media or our role in it. As individuals, we should also weigh carefully the potential for controversy, whether the organization in which we may be involved will present a real or perceived conflict of interest. Most importantly, if an reporter is involved with an organization, that reporter is bound by ethics to disclose that involvement.
Reporters should not use their your positions as journalists to gain any advantage in their personal activities. Business or press credentials or affiliation with CRA or any of its programs should be used only for gathering and reporting news. Reporters should not refer to their CRA connection while attempting to ensure quicker service or push consumer grievances.
Reporters and all affiliates of the Community Reporting Alliance are asked to use prudent judgment in taking a public position or in displaying bumper stickers, wearing campaign buttons or participating in any public demonstration.
These are, of course, limits on freedom of expression that do not apply to ordinary citizens who are not journalists. Journalists enjoy an extraordinary ability to exercise their First Amendment right of freedom of the press. With the job of reporter or editor we accept an obligation to nurture the responsible exercise of that freedom. In so doing, we also give up a measure of the right of free speech.
Friends, Family Members, Neighbors: Do not write about, photograph, edit or make news judgments about any individual related to you by blood or marriage or with whom you have a close personal or financial relationship. Exceptions may be made for column writing. Reporters should avoid circumstances with potential for such a conflict of interest. The simplest solutions are for another person to handle the story or to seek another source for the information. If that is not possible, disclosure is strongly advised.
All news stories written in connection to CRA or any CRA program should be fair, complete and balanced, reflecting all viewpoints regardless of whether we personally agree with the viewpoints or whether the viewpoint was enunciated at the meeting we covered.
We should take particular pains to seek out those who do not have easy access to the press, to give voice to the voiceless. Each news story should be presented in sufficient historical and factual context to assure that a fair and accurate picture is conveyed. Stories should be free of distortion that could be created by omission, inappropriate emphasis or the selective use of fact.
The Reporting Alliance asks that all its affiliate reporters lean over backwards to present all sides of public issues and give them equal weight.
Any gift of significant value should be declined or returned. In addition, we should never solicit, accept, directly or indirectly, any payment, loan, services, equipment or any thing of value, or any gift, entertainment or reimbursement of expenses of more than nominal value or that exceeds customary courtesies for that time and place from sources, or from any company, institution or individual that furnishes or seeks to furnish news, information or services to us in any news we pursue for the Story Center or the Community Reporting Alliance.
We should pay for our own meals whenever possible. A news source or public official may offer dinner, a drink or some other expression of hospitality. If refusal would be awkward or insulting, acceptance of moderate expressions of hospitality may be appropriate, especially if we can reciprocate later. In the case of a fund-raising meal, particularly for political purposes, arrange to pay the cost of the meal only. If the sponsor can't accommodate that, grab a sandwich before the dinner.
CRA asks that reporters in pursuit of news for CRA accept passes to events only for seats in a special press section that could not otherwise be sold. Also, only those covering the event should use press facilities. If you're there for fun, you should buy your own ticket. Nor should journalists solicit or accept free or reduced-price tickets to entertainment events. Paying our own way helps to avoid any appearance of conflict. Press "freeloads" — hospitality events unlikely to yield beneficial contacts or useful background information — should be declined unless there is a legitimate news purpose for attending. This also includes reduced-fare days or freebie days offered to members of the media by such entertainment destinations as a golf course or ski area. Do not accept free memberships or reduced fees for membership in clubs or organizations.
Attribution lets readers know where our information comes from. Relatively little of what we report is based on our own direct observation; we rely most on information gathered from others: human sources, government documents, the internet. Always credit where and how we found out information. The attribution we attach to the information we publish allows our readers to judge for themselves the quality of our sources and the information those sources provide. Do not plagiarize; if you use other peoples' work – whether it be from the Internet or a competitor, be sure to give them credit; do not pass the work off as your own.
A hallmark of credibility is admitting fault. We make no pretense of perfection; to do so would bring our credibility into question. To preserve your credibility and ours, and to set the record straight, reporters must strive to correct any factual error that appears in any story, no matter what the magnitude of the error. It is the obligation of reporters to point out when an error has been made and to bring to the attention of a Community Reporting Alliance manager. Even in cases where the error and its remedy are patently obvious, we should correct it simply to acknowledge to the public that we are aware of the error. A correction should clearly indicate how the error occurred. It should clearly indicate what the error was, unless doing so would tend to unnecessarily perpetuate the error.
Editing of photograph, video or the images and sound in multimedia reporting is strictly prohibited. Don't alter content. Dodging, burning, cleaning off dust specks are permitted as is cleaning up sound or adjusting volume for the sake of appropriate sound levels. There is one absolute: If the final product may mislead the reader, viewer or listener, it is wrong.
Editors, producers and news designers: collages or any manipulation of photos (such as the use of Photoshop filters) must be clearly identified as such in the cutline. This also applies to sound and video editors where the manipulation of the capture goes beyond the norm.
A simple rule: If it's not obvious to readers or viewers, identify what you did.
The Poynter Ethics Journal points out that there has been an ongoing conversation throughout the industry about the "unsatisfactory nature of the discussions we have, or don't have, around conflicts of interests in our newsrooms. We rarely talk about this, except to say: Don't take gifts, don't join controversial groups, and don't put political signs in your yard.
And when we do stumble into a situation for which we don't have a pre-existing rule, we instinctively look for similar situations with different circumstances. Could black journalists cover the Civil Rights movement? Can a Catholic journalist write about the clergy scandal? If you lived through a violent crime, can you report on other violent crimes? Can a woman do stories on abortion?
This is a natural reaction. But it leads down a path of reasoning and rationalization. All conflicts are not created equal. There is no arbitrary test by which a conflict can be judged to determine if it rises to the level that precludes a journalist from covering particular stories. Instead, what becomes important is the process by which conflicts — all conflicts — are examined in newsrooms.
The first step of this process, the one often skipped over, is to ask reporters to examine his or her conflicts of interest. What is it about my beliefs or experiences that might compromise my ability to be fair? It might sound unnecessary, impractical, and even painful.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Openly discussing potential conflicts could be a part of daily life. It could become as reflexive as fact-checking a story, writing a budget line, or brainstorming for new story ideas.
Rather than searching for analogies, journalists must find the threshold where individuals are disqualified from reporting, editing, or influencing a particular story. One threshold should be when fairness cannot be achieved. Another threshold involves public perception. When a journalist enters into the public debate, he gives the public cause to doubt his ability to report the news fairly.
In most cases, it takes more than a person's identity to disqualify him or her from covering a particular story. Usually it takes a specific action, like giving money to a cause or taking a public stance by signing a petition or putting a bumper sticker on your car.
In dealing with a potential conflict, we ask the second question, "What if the readers or viewers found out?" but we ignore the first question, "Can we be fair?" So it becomes more likely we won't discuss the conflicts hidden from the audience but liable to seep into our journalism unchecked.
Now is a good time to have better conversations. It starts with a well-articulated policy that makes it clear that all journalists have conflicts of interest. Maintaining credibility with the public means journalists should avoid working on stories where their personal beliefs have led to a specific action.
Examples are fine as long as they don't become narrow rules that stifle discussion. For instance, an editor might say, "Participating in a public commemoration marking the anniversary of Roe v. Wade would disqualify a journalist from reporting or editing stories about abortion. By doing so, the journalist has entered the public debate."
The best policies should hold the door open for honest conversations about those conflicts without becoming punitive. The worst policies will presume to have the answers or a formula for determining the answers.
Editors should consider a range of alternatives:
* Craft reporting strategies to mitigate bias.
* Assign an editor to screen stories for fairness.
* Disclose certain conflicts to the public.
By creating a process in which conflicts are routinely handled without negative effects, we make the discussion a normal part of gathering the news. Turning our heads and ignoring the many conflicts present in among journalists will create a more serious problem: The public will stop trusting us.
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