Ethics code, adopted by the San Antonio Express-News in April 1998.
As the number of information sources increases, we must work harder to maintain our credibility – our competitive edge as a newspaper and our link to the community.
Several factors suggested the need for a new look at the Express-News’ Ethics Code: our status as the city’s sole daily newspaper, an industry-wide re-evaluation of ethical issues, the increasing complexity of such issues, changes in technology that affect how we do business, and the newspaper’s re-examination of its role in the community.
How do you know when you’re facing an ethical dilemma? Generally, if it doesn’t feel quite right, it’s probably not. Imagine your situation as the subject of a Page 1 story: Would you be comfortable with it? That’s where this code, and a standing ethics committee made up of your co-workers, comes into play. If you find yourself facing an ethical question, consult a member of the ethics committee for help.
With the code as a general guideline and the advice of your peers and supervisors, you should be able to find the answers you need. Openness and compliance are essential to this code’s success, as are common sense and prior consultation on issues that create questions. Staff members must become familiar with our code and make its guidelines a part of every workday. Free-lancers should be encouraged to follow the same principles.
The goal of the Express-news ethics code is to make it easier for us to concentrate on the job at hand: to use our voice and our power fairly and with integrity and to provide information to our readers.
How we represent ourselves on (and off) the job
While we all know that good journalists are unaffected by outside influences, we also know that perception is everything. It’s the appearance of conflict of interest, as much as the real thing, that we need to address: If you’re truly compromising your integrity, you won’t last long here.
A lot of actions fall under the umbrella of appearances: lunches, dinners and entertainment among them. It’s important to make it clear that we pay our own way. When you find yourself sharing a meal with a news source while working on a story, opt for splitting the bill. If someone insists on picking up the tab for lunch, be gracious about it but make it clear that you’ll pay next time – and do it.
If you are covering an event at which alcohol is served, do not drink (exceptions, of course, are writers who cover food and wine events). If you are attending but not covering an event, practice moderation; remember that your behavior is always noted as reflecting upon the Express-News.
Journalists should always identify themselves clearly as Express-News employees. Exceptions must be approved in advance by a senior editor. This does not apply to normal review work of critics and other journalists attending an event.
Avoid being an advocate in the news pages. Analysis and commentary must be labeled to avoid misrepresentation of coverage. This also extends to the news-gathering process. Failure to include opposing versions in a story reduces the paper’s credibility. Journalists should make every effort to contact and interview subjects of news stories and columns.
Express-News journalists should object when they believe a government body or court session is conducting or about to conduct an illegal closed meeting or hearing.
Journalists should resist requests by sources to share information collected for a story. This does not apply to collaborative efforts but does include the inappropriate transfer of information outside the newsroom.
Gifts or promotional items that give the appearance of being requests for or in “payment” for stories are not acceptable. This would include anything from a framed poster to a rod-and-reel set.
Gifts of token value – $10 is a good guideline – may be accepted if they can be shared with editorial staff members. No one’s going to be compromised by eating a slice of cake. But bottles of alcoholic beverages cannot be accepted; and substantial gifts sent to a single person – such as a piece of jewelry or an art object – should be returned, donated to charity or placed in storage for the next in-house book-gift sale to benefit ENCORPS. Floral arrangements are an example of gifts that have gotten out of hand at the Express-News. They should be placed in the newsroom or other central place, and the recipient should bear the responsibility for contacting the giver and suggesting that while appreciated, they are unnecessary and often embarrassing.
We have developed a sample letter (copy attached) that you should follow, adapting it a bit for each situation. It should explain that while we appreciate the thought, we cannot accept gifts; it should name the charity to which we’ve sent the gift and ask (nicely) that our names be deleted from future gift lists. “Just a press release is plenty, folks” is the idea we want to convey. This will eventually slow down the flow of unsolicited “thanks” or “please” items.
Tickets, passes, trips
We don’t pay to cover the news; using the press row while covering an event is fine. But free tickets or passes for events open to the public for an admission fee should be not be used for our own pleasure or that of our family and friends. (The exception to this rule are the tickets that come from Human Resources; they are paid for by the Express-News and come from our editorial/entertainment budget.) In short, don’t use your position to get free admission to an event unless you plan to write about it or will use it as background for your job.
If travel is subsidized, permission must first have been granted, and the resulting stories should reflect the subsidized arrangement. The Express-News is committed to budgeting for press rates on travel, with the goal of eliminating all free travel.
Covering events that involve travel to foreign countries may be done at a package price acceptable to both parties. The payment of bribes or illegal gratuities in Mexico or other Third World countries where we have journalists is prohibited.
Books, records, cassettes, CDs and videotapes may be kept by those who review them — unless the organization sending them for review requests their return. Books related to one’s work may be kept for reference without being reviewed, so long as the staffer did not solicit the book in the first place. The book editor may give books with specialized content to those who might benefit from having them – such as baseball books to the sports department, investment books to the business department – without obligation to review.
All review materials that are not reviewed and not clearly earmarked as general reference, along with other unsolicited gifts, will be donated when no longer needed to libraries, hospitals, prisons, charity groups, schools or for the periodic in-house sale to benefit ENCORPS.
If a product or service must be tested as part of news coverage, the Express-News will pay for the rental or purchase if a loan is not a possibility.
No Express-News employee or free-lancer may receive review or promotional materials at a home address except with prior approval of an editor in special circumstances.
Resale of any promotional or review materials may lead to termination.
Conflict of interest
We must scrupulously avoid all business dealings that create even the perception of a conflict of interest. All credibility is lost when the reader perceives that we are profiting from our positions or from insider information. Avoid any practice that might compromise or appear to compromise your objectivity or fairness.
While we can no more prohibit our editorial employees from buying stock than we can prohibit them from establishing a savings account at the local bank, we cannot profit from insider information, nor can we use our position to promote the investments we ourselves have.
Business writers and editors may not invest in local companies or mutual funds that they are likely to cover or make news judgments about. Pre-existing investments should be disclosed to a supervisor. Under no circumstances should a staffer assign, write about or edit a story about a company in which she/he has a financial interest or direct ownership. Personal investments should not influence what we write.
Columnists and writers should not promote events they are part of in the newspaper; using news space to drive attendance to an event is a conflict of interest. In situations where the Express- News is an event sponsor, the Marketing Department will assume responsibility for getting the word out via house ads, etc. If you’re called upon to discuss an event you’re involved in through another outlet, avoid overhyping your cause or any co-sponsors.
Publicity work for any organization is considered a conflict of interest. You may not judge an event and then write about it.
While it’s obvious you can’t take gifts or tickets from sources, it may need to be emphasized that neither do you contribute to their causes or engage in activity that would be perceived as a conflict of interest. The general rule is, how would you feel if it were written about in the Columbia Journalism Review?
Plagiarism is one of the most serious offenses for journalists. Punishments can range from verbal and written warnings to suspension with or without pay to termination.
With the increase in online information, it is tempting to lift wording from information you find on the Web or retrieve from the archives of other publications. Remember that digital words are no less copyrighted than words in print, and should never be republished without seeking the permission of the author.
Memberships, political activism
It’s unrealistic to expect that we can avoid all outside activities. The problem arises when our professional and personal lives become so intertwined that a conflict of interest either exists or is perceived to exist.
While we applaud community involvement, when it gives the appearance of interfering with our work or unduly influencing it, our credibility has been compromised.
Membership in professional journalism groups is an approved activity, as is serving on their boards. Membership in professional organizations in your field of expertise – i.e., books, travel, food organizations – is approved, but service on boards of these groups is strongly discouraged. Even the most benign group may become newsworthy, and an Express-News employee may find him/herself involved in an activity or organization that has suddenly become controversial. In those instances, employees are expected to distance themselves from the group or activity.
Contributions to or work for political parties or direct involvement with issues is prohibited for all editorial staffers. While we cannot place restrictions on the political activities of your spouse or significant other, your degree of involvement should be carefully considered and fully disclosed to your supervisor. Obviously, don’t write about political activities involving your spouse or significant other.
The Express-News welcomes professional opportunities for its staff members, which often bring credit both to the individuals and to the institution. But there are restrictions and we do require prior approval on free-lance projects or other forms of employment. The Express-News has a comprehensive policy that covers free-lancing and the appropriate steps employees must take before accepting outside work. Consult your supervisor before undertaking any work outside the Express-News.
If you decide to pursue outside employment, be sure that you clear it with your supervisor, that you do it on your own time, and – most important – that it won’t create a conflict with what you do at work or affect your performance on the job.
Stipends in excess of $500 for speaking or judging should be cleared with your AME.
Moonlighters must not use the pages of the Express-News to promote their outside work or those who provide it. Free-lancing for competitive outlets is prohibited, unless specifically approved in advance by a supervisor. These would include online services available in San Antonio, TV and radio stations, PR and advertising firms and any other outlets that could be construed as representing a conflict of interest.
Attribution of sources
The Express-News pledges to make every effort to tell our readers the source of all information we publish. For those unavoidable exceptions in which the source of the story may be as newsworthy as the story itself, editors should make every effort to share with readers why the information regarding the source’s identity is being withheld.
Also, we pledge not to publish anonymously provided news unless the reporter can identify the source of the news to the satisfaction of a senior editor. In cases where an anonymous source is used, senior editors have the right to know the source’s identity and the circumstances under which the information was provided to a reporter before publishing. If the source won’t reveal his/her identity, even with the promise of anonymity, the story can’t be printed unless otherwise confirmed, and a reporter’s refusal to identify a source will preclude publication of the material. We don’t want to become a mouthpiece for any malcontent.
Off-the-record comments have the same restrictions. The reporter must offer full disclosure to the relevant editor.
The Express-News sponsors many community-based events. It can’t be said strongly enough: If we overhype our own causes, we lose credibility. Editors have the authority to make decisions about the news value of events with which the newspaper is involved.
Editors recognize the importance and value of the newspaper’s community relations program and other outreach efforts by the Express-News, as well as other institutions and individuals. However, the same standards of newsworthiness apply to all events. Editors must resist pressure to dedicate news space to open support or boosterism for fund-raising efforts or other causes that often are also the subject of news coverage. Using news space for promotional campaigns is to be discouraged. It’s inappropriate to publish material produced by an organization in a way designed to make the reader believe that an independent journalist wrote it.
The newsworthiness of any event is an editor’s call. Those who “go to the top” to seek coverage, bypassing the editors charged with making these judgments, should be actively discouraged from doing so. All newsroom employees should be reminded that requests for coverage that seems unreasonable should be reported to an editor.
Pictures, whether used to depict news events as they actually happen, to illustrate news that has happened or to help explain anything of public interest, are an indispensable means of keeping the public accurately informed. To that end, photojournalists at the San Antonio Express-News subscribe to these tenets:
1. It is the individual responsibility of every photojournalist to strive for pictures that report truthfully, honestly and objectively. There is a clear difference between news documentary photos and feature portraits and illustrations that are posed or created for a particular story. The same ethical standards that are apply to written stories are applied to news documentary photos, including spot and general news, sports and enterprise feature photos. No photo of a news or live event is to be posed, nor should any attempt be made by the photographer to direct the action.
2. As journalists, credibility is our greatest asset. In documentary photojournalism, it is wrong to alter the content of a photograph in any way (electronically or in the darkroom) that deceives the public. The guidelines for fair and accurate reporting should be the criteria for judging what may be done electronically to a photograph. Any computer correction of a news photo to enhance its reproduction may use only those techniques that have been commonly accepted in traditional chemical darkrooms, including dodging or burning in selected areas of a photo without changing its content, and correction of technical defects, such as scratches, dust marks and color shifts caused by mixed lighting sources. No photographer, artist, copy editor or technician may change the actual color content of any news photo. News photos may not be flopped to face the other way, they may not be stretched or shrunk to fit a layout, and they should not be cropped to present an image that is not supported by facts, or to create an impression or evoke an emotion that is not genuine. File photos should never be represented as live photos.
3. It is clear that the emerging electronic technologies provide new challenges to the integrity of photographic images. In light of this, any photo that is created with computer technology or that is manipulated beyond the guidelines above must be labeled as a photo illustration.
4. In the case of controversial photographs where subject matter includes possible violations of acceptable community standards (such as the inclusion of dead human bodies, grisly crime scenes, genitals, obscene gestures or language), a newsroom consultation group shall discuss the matter. That group should include: the page editor; the photographer, when possible; the director of photography or the photo editor on duty; the top newsroom editor available and the editor of the section in which the photo will appear. The editor of the newspaper shall make the final decision.
5. All photographs taken for the San Antonio Express-News remain the property of the Express- News and may not be sold without prior approval from a supervisor. Only the pictures that were published are available for reprints to the general public, and can be made available only as prints or digital files; under no circumstances are negatives released. Requests for reprints for reproduction must be referred to the photo director or photo editors for approval and pricing. Some photographs (such as NBA, NFL and concert coverage) may not be available due to contractual agreements with the leagues or promoters. No pictures of political candidates will be released during a campaign.
6. Photographers are permitted to accept free-lance work, but must receive approval beforehand from the photo editors or photo director. Free-lancing for competitive outlets, advertising firms and public relations companies is prohibited. All free-lancing is to be on the photographer’s own time, using his or her own materials. Photographers should not represent themselves as Express-News photographers while on free-lance assignment.
New employees will be given a copy of the Express-News ethics code during orientation. Every employee should read, understand and sign the policy. It will be placed in the Employee Handbook and employees will receive periodic reminders of its importance.
Employment as an editorial staff member hinges upon acceptance of this code, and violations could result in disciplinary action and/or dismissal. The Express-News ethics code will periodically be published for our readers and posted on our Website.
Because ethics is a daily issue, the Express-News ethics committee will remain in place, with staff members assuming a rotation position, to answer employee questions. Issues and questions should be brought to the attention of a member of the ethics committee. The committee, however, has no authority to make or review personnel and/or news decisions.
Ethics Committee Members:
Judyth Rigler, Chair
Terry Scott Bertling