Be Ethical Nov09


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Be Ethical

Here’s a crash course in news reporting ethics, which you can hand out to your contributors:

Don’t ever lie or misrepresent yourself, in posts or while reporting.

Always identify yourself as a reporter to anyone you’re interviewing for a story, and explain where the story will be published. If you feel they don’t understand they’re being interviewed for publication, make every possible effort to explain this to them.

Don’t take freebies, goods or services from anyone featured in a story. (One exception to this, depending on the policy of your news organization, is “press tickets” for events which you’re covering — but only if you’re actually covering the event that the ticket is for.)

Don’t report on people that you know personally in straight news stories. In personal columns or opinion pieces, if you have a relationship of any kind (family, friend, enemy, lover, business associate) with a person mentioned or quoted, make sure that relationship is clearly disclosed in the piece.

The difference between fact and heresay: If you’re presenting something as a fact, make sure you’ve seen it to be true with your own eyes or it’s widely accepted and documented as the truth (for example, Barack Obama is the president of the United States). Otherwise, check it out. (There’s a saying in journalism — “If your mom says she loves, you — check it out.”) And don’t forget to attribute any information that you can’t establish yourself — for example, “Police said the suspect robbed the store.”

Just because something has been printed in another news source, doesn’t mean it’s true. When referencing information from another news source, be sure to cite and link to the news source. This is partly to give the other publication credit for the reporting, and partly to protect your publication if their reporting turns out to be faulty.

Attribution is not a blanket protection, however — even if you do attribute, don’t publish information that you have reason to believe is untrue, libelous, or offensive. Make sure to use reliable sources.

“Off the record,” “on background,” “not for attribution,” or unnamed sources: In general, avoid all of these arrangements unless the only person who has the information or experience you need is completely unwilling to speak to you under any other condition. When making an arrangement like this, discuss with your source what exactly it means, and how he will be referenced in the article. Don’t agree to misidentify someone — as “a friend of the politician,” for example, when she is in fact the politician herself.

When interviewing or photographing children under 16, make sure you have a parent’s permission to use their name and likeness online. It is not illegal to run photos of children without permission, but it’s something that many parents will object to, so it’s worth checking in most cases.

If you’re writing an opinion column, a review, a personal essay or any other kind of subjective piece, make sure that is clearly labeled that way so that readers can see the distinction between opinion and straight news reporting.

Corrections: If you find out something is incorrect in a story you’ve written, let your publication know ASAP. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad journalist — it happens to everyone once in a while! — but it is important that your publication corrects it immediately.

Photo by Kissey Asplund for The Local