Statement of Journalistic Ethics of The Daily Press, Hampton, Va.
Employees of the News Department of The Daily Press Inc. are expected to be honest and honorable, and to adhere to the highest standards of professional journalism. This statement sets forth guidelines that underscore established journalistic standards of conduct.
These guidelines do not cover all possibilities in all circumstances. Employees are expected to use prudent professional judgment in any situation that may affect the newspaper’s integrity and reputation for maintaining the highest standards. Violations of these guidelines may result in disciplinary action.
This statement serves as a supplement to Tribune Co.’s Code of Business Conduct. That code addresses general standards of business behavior; this policy deals with values and ethics of more specific concern to journalists.
Where journalists are concerned, the mere appearance of impropriety can be as damaging as a gross breach of professional behavior. We know we can’t be bought for the price of a lunch or an airplane ticket – or for any price, monetary or otherwise. If our readers and sources suspect that we have been, damage is done to that fragile commodity upon which we bank – credibility. We become simply another business enterprise.
The newspaper’s reputation for fairness is conveyed through the actions of all of its editorial staff members, part-time and full, as well as contractors who perform journalistic tasks for us. For that reason, this statement applies to all News Department employees, and its standards must be made clear to those who free-lance for us.
You should discuss any potential ethical problem with your supervisor. Because journalists are also citizens and human beings, potential conflicts of interest will inevitably arise. Disclosure and discussion can help determine whether such a conflict endangers credibility. Supervisors are expected to note potential conflicts and discussions regarding such issues in employees’ files. They should also make sure the editor is made aware of such issues.
Three basic rules underlie this statement:
1. When in doubt, don’t.
2. After you didn’t, talk to your supervisor about it.
3. Common sense and good judgment should always prevail.
Conflicts of interest
Don’t use your position or the name of the newspaper to gain any advantage in your personal activities. Your business card or Daily Press stationery should be used only for company business. Even using the office fax can pose a problem: It stamps the company’s name on outgoing material.
Staff members should not refer to their newspaper connection while attempting to ensure quicker service or push consumer grievances.
Avoid financial investments or other outside business interests that could conflict – or be perceived to conflict – with the newspaper’s ability to report the news objectively. If you are unsure about a venture, run it by your supervisor first.
The newspaper recognizes that its employees are members of the community. We encourage you to take part in civic and community organizations. Such activities can be personally fulfilling, and they’re good for the community. They also help to keep you – and the newspaper – plugged into the real world.
Good sense dictates that you steer clear of any group or activity that directly relates to your newspaper job, other than professional journalism organizations. You should also weigh carefully the potential for controversy, whether the organization is likely to be the subject of news coverage. Consider whether your involvement will present a real or perceived conflict of interest.
A sports reporter, for instance, may not serve as official scorer or any type of official at a sporting event the newspaper covers. Critics should carefully weigh the potential for conflict present when they participate in the kind of activity they are called upon to evaluate for the paper.
If you do join a group, shy away from top leadership positions. Such offices should be discussed with a supervising editor before they’re accepted. You should not agree to be in charge of an organization’s public relations or publicity, since your connection with the newspaper could give, or be perceived as giving, the organization an unfair advantage over other groups.
Fundraising for any organization or cause, no matter how worthy, has great potential to create a conflict of interest or the appearance of one. Such activities should be undertaken only with great care. For instance, no editorial employee should ever solicit people, companies or other organizations that are covered by the newspaper.
Seeking elective public office is prohibited for any active employee of the News Department. Membership on a public board, agency or committee is strongly discouraged – and prohibited without advance approval by the editor.
Employees who take a public position on any significant issue or publicly endorse a particular product endanger their reputation for impartiality. Endorsing some causes can be relatively innocuous – serving as figurehead for a charity bike-a-thon, for example – and may be allowed with proper clearance from a supervisor. Signing political petitions or speaking at a public hearing on a hot issue in the town where you live are best avoided, however. You should use prudent judgment in displaying bumper stickers, wearing campaign buttons or participating in any public demonstration.
Those 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 they accept an obligation to nurture the responsible exercise of that freedom. In so doing, they also give up a measure of the right of free speech – or should at least use considerable caution when they exercise that right.
Friends, family members, neighbors
You should not write about, photograph, edit or make news judgments about any individual related by blood or marriage or with whom you have a close personal or financial relationship. Exceptions may be made for column writing, as long as there is no intention to benefit the subject.
Staffers placed in circumstances with potential for such a conflict of interest should advise their supervisors; the simplest solutions are for another person to handle the story/picture or for the quotes or picture to be obtained from another source.
Stories about us
Members of the newspaper staff who become the subjects of stories should expect to be treated like anyone else thrust into the limelight – with extra consideration given to the notion of full public disclosure simply because the story involves one of us. Above all else, we should avoid the appearance of favoring one of our own with special treatment.
Stories we write about ourselves, particularly in situations that might tend to cast the newspaper in an unfavorable light, will inevitably be viewed with some skepticism by many of our readers. They will also be read critically by managers throughout the Daily Press and, potentially, its parent company. Those factors should serve as a signal that such stories should be handled with extraordinary care.
For the purposes of news judgment, we should consider executives and members of the staff who are well known in the community – such as columnists or reporters in highly visible positions – to be public figures. For those in less visible positions with the company a greater consideration should be given to personal privacy. In any case, the credibility of the newspaper should be considered paramount. And in every case, stories involving Daily Press employees should be discussed with the editor prior to publication.
As a general rule, any story that mentions the Daily Press in any way should be brought to the personal attention of the editor.
We encourage members of the staff to enter contests whose central purpose is recognition of journalistic excellence. Generally, the newspaper will endorse and pay any entry fees for journalistic competition that is considered in the interest of the Daily Press.
Contests whose goals are to further the cause of a special interest group are best avoided.
Notify your supervisor of any journalism competition contest in which you plan to enter work that was published in the Daily Press.
Outside employment or compensation is permitted only when editorial supervisors determine it does not constitute a conflict of interest or otherwise interfere with a staff member’s job performance.
All staff members must disclose any such arrangement (whether in a media-related field or not):
– to the editor hiring the staffer before commencement of employment;
– to the staffer’s direct supervisor (who may then want to consult with a higher editor) beforehand;
– and on the attached form on an annual basis.
Typically, arrangements that could be considered conflicts with the business interests of The Daily Press Inc. and Tribune Co. include:
– those involving competing or potentially competing publications in or near our circulation area, as well as those that compete with other Tribune Co. publications (including area/regional newspapers and magazines);
– wire services or syndicates that sell their content to competing publications (other than submissions made by the Daily Press to services like the Associated Press and Knight-Ridder/Tribune, of which it is a contributing member);
– national newspapers which circulate in Tribune markets;
– any appearance on a radio, television or cable outlet not allied with the Daily Press in a formal or informal partnership;
– and any Internet or online news or information services which provide content that is directly competitive with Daily Press, Digital City or other Tribune Co. Internet or online offerings.
All companies that publish information of any kind on the Internet, the World Wide Web, or other online or interactive services are potentially in competition with the Daily Press and Tribune Co. for readers and advertisers. In cases where the editors approve of a free-lance arrangement that will result in the appearance of a staffer’s work on any such medium, approval depends on agreement between The Daily Press Inc. and/or Digital City Hampton Roads and the other interactive publisher regarding promotional and other considerations. For example, in the case of an article, prominent identification of its author as a writer for the Daily Press may be required, with the words “Daily Press” hyperlinked to an appropriate company online site.
The editors may determine that other activities present a conflict of interest. And the editors reserve the right to withdraw approval of any activity as circumstances change.
The appearance of a staffer’s byline/credit, identified as a representative of the Daily Press, can sometimes be considered beneficial to the company or its image, as can occasional appearances on electronic media with which the Daily Press has no working partnership. Work for an entity that might otherwise be considered a competitor or potential competitor might be allowed under such circumstances. Still, such an arrangement would be subject to the judgment of supervising and senior editors.
Staff members may not use Daily Press supplies, materials, equipment, content or other materials in the course of any outside employment or endeavor.
We should pay for our own meals whenever possible. If there’s a legitimate news purpose involved, the company will reimburse you.
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 you 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 burger before the dinner.
Discourage promotional products for which we have no reasonable journalistic use by notifying their sources to stop sending them. Products that may be useful in preparation of a story or photograph should be routed to those staffers who need them. For instance, a food writer may have a legitimate need to test or sample a product as part of the research for a story. A book reviewer has a legitimate need to read a book that is assigned.
Good news judgment should be applied in evaluating legitimate need; in other words, don’t do a story on the newest version of Cocoa Crunchies just because a box arrived in the mail.
No book, record, tape or any other reusable product received – solicited or unsolicited – may be sold by any news staffer. Disposal of both solicited and purchased items should be determined by an editor, who should look for ways to donate them to charitable organizations. Just because you were lucky enough to get the story assignment on a new perfume doesn’t entitle you to bathe in it.
Staff members may accept passes to events only for seats in a special press section that could not otherwise be sold. However, only those covering the event should use press facilities. If you’re there for fun, you should buy your own ticket. Editorial employees may not solicit or accept free or reduced-price tickets to entertainment events.
The newspaper will purchase tickets for a staffer – and, when appropriate, a companion – to plays, concerts, films and other presentations to cover or review such events. Our coverage could significantly affect ticket sales, so we should pay our own way to avoid any appearance of conflict.
Press “freeloads” – hospitality events unlikely to yield beneficial contacts or useful background information – should be declined unless you have a legitimate news purpose for attending. This also includes reduced-fare days or freebie days offered to the press by such entertainment destinations as Colonial Williamsburg.
An exception arises in those events offered to The Daily Press Inc. as a major employer, like the reduced-price movie tickets available through the human resources department. Such discounts are offered to many major companies, newspaper or otherwise.
Do not accept free memberships or reduced fees for membership in clubs or organizations unless such benefits are offered to other, non-news-oriented companies or organizations on the same basis.
Any gift of significant value should be declined or returned. Examples include lodging, tickets to events, liquor, food and wine baskets, plane tickets and expensive meals.
Refuse such gifts politely, explaining that acceptance would violate good journalistic standards. Where refusal or return is impractical, donate them to a suitable charity.
Handcrafted, non-returnable gifts may occasionally merit acceptance where the circumstances make refusal awkward. An elderly couple were so excited about an article written about them that they spent three months making the reporter a wooden ottoman with needlepoint top. The pride on their faces as they presented it to her dictated no other appropriate response than grateful acceptance.
Gifts of insignificant value – pencils, key chains, calendars or such – may be accepted if refusing or returning them would be awkward. Generally, however, polite refusal should be the rule under any circumstance.
Junkets and reduced travel rates should be refused. The newspaper will pay for transportation, meals and lodging for travel associated with an assigned story or other professional activity required by your job. If a story is worth doing only if someone else pays the expenses, it’s not worth doing.
We should make travel writers, free-lancers and community members contributing travel pieces that we expect them to adhere to strict pay-your-own-way standards for all food, transportation and accommodations.
In rare situations the only available transportation to a legitimate news story may be provided by the armed forces, government or other entity. Acceptance of any such transportation must be discussed with and approved by your supervisor. When compromises are made out of such necessity, the paper can help maintain its credibility by full disclosure of the arrangement in the story.
If you travel on a campaign- or team-chartered plane or are put in team housing, insist that the newspaper be billed. The amount paid should represent the actual cost of travel, not a subsidized rate.
Our readers judge us by what we do, not by what we believe. Our daily exercise of journalism – the way we report and write, what we put in the paper and how we put it there – serves as a billboard for our beliefs. We put our credibility on the line each day; we are being measured each time a reader picks us up.
The guidelines that follow address the way we practice journalism: our transactions with sources, our treatment of the subjects of news stories, our responsibility to our community and our responsibility for the effect of what we publish.
These guidelines put a premium on the use of common sense and the application of judgment, and on discussion of the way these ideas should or must be applied to everyday reporting and editing.
In many ways, these practical issues of journalism are far more important than the relatively straightforward rules regarding gifts and conflicts of interest. They encompass more variables; you may never confront a set of circumstances for which you’ll find a perfect answer here. Deadlines may mean that judgments must be made more hurriedly than would be ideal, or with a less-than-perfect set of facts.
The stakes are higher: A press that continues free and unfettered depends on our responsible stewardship of the First Amendment. That’s the reason we’ve taken such care to build these guidelines for the practice of journalism by the staff of the Daily Press.
Beneath these guidelines rests the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would have them treat you.
Our news judgments should be influenced by intellectual honesty; by compassion for individuals; by the consequences of publication; and by readers’ need to know. There are occasions when an exercise of self-restraint will be in the public interest, when significant harm can be reasonably anticipated as a result of publication, with no balancing public benefit.
That weighing of benefit against potential harm – particularly to an individual who is thrust into the light of publicity not by choice – should be a constant exercise in the application of news judgment. We should approach it as a green-light question – Is there sufficient reason to publish this information? – rather than a red light – Is there sufficient reason not to? And we should fall back on that Golden Rule.
The need to publish immediately is likely to come into conflict with our consideration of other ethical obligations. Surely information of public interest loses its value to our readers with the passage of time. Still, even under the pressure of deadline we must apply reasonable judgment, weighing the good that will be achieved with speed against the harm that could be inflicted by compromising other values.
Our stories should be fair, complete and balanced, reflecting all responsible viewpoints of the issues we choose to report. We should take particular pains to seek out those who do not have easy access to the press, to give voice to the voiceless.
News 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.
In reporting information that could injure the reputation of an individual or group, those affected should be given a timely and reasonable opportunity to respond. That dramatic call made just before deadline to seek a response to the findings of a complicated reportorial investigation does not necessarily constitute a reasonable opportunity.
Unless we have some reason to believe damage will result – evidence destroyed, sources compromised, some important public interest threatened – we should seek response in ample time to allow a complete and considered answer. The loss of journalistic competitive advantage may also be an issue, but it can never outweigh the value of fairness.
Stories and pictures should be displayed in a way that reflects their importance to the community or their potential interest to readers, and decisions regarding play should take into careful account past practices regarding similar stories. Such precedents should not hopelessly bind us, but we should be aware that dissimilar treatment for similar stories raises questions among readers. They assume we do everything we do for a carefully calculated reason, not because it was a slow news day.
When stories have been prominently displayed, fairness requires that substantial subsequent developments be covered, and similarly displayed. For example, if we report an indictment with a big headline on Page One, an acquittal should merit prominent display as well.
That should not be construed as a strict doctrine of equal space or equal play, but as an obligation to fairness. In the case of political candidates, for instance, we should follow a general rule of roughly equal treatment of candidate announcements for office. But circumstances will dictate that some announcements are more interesting than others, so variations in play and treatment are sometimes appropriate. Again, reasonable judgment rules.
As we seek out the other voices that will give our coverage balance and fairness, we should also take care that our quest for “the other side” does not create imbalance. Too frequently a marginal dissenter or heckler finds prominent play in a story where the vast majority of the activity was focused elsewhere. The result is neither fair nor accurate. Of course, history has heard many lonely “crackpots” who turned out to be right, but we have an obligation to ask for some demonstration of factual basis or expertise before we necessarily buy their arguments or even give them the weight that appearance in print can impart.
The typical conflict model of reporting – one side versus the other – may not satisfy our readers’ desire for balanced coverage. Issues frequently present more complexities than can be properly explained by pitting two polar extremes against each other. Our stories, over time, should seek to find the whole of an issue, including the ambiguities and uncertainties that typically exist somewhere in the middle.
Privacy and intrusion
We should be especially sensitive to the legitimate privacy concerns of ordinary citizens who are thrust into the news: innocent bystanders, witnesses, victims, relatives, heroes, whistleblowers and minors. We’re in the information business, and that means we want details and background and facts. But the value and relevance of publishing such information as names, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, ethnicity and past behavior should be weighed against compassion for the individual.
The newspaper should also respect the reasonable privacy of public figures. Although politicians, government officials and other major community leaders have thrust themselves into the public limelight and in so doing subject themselves to a higher level of public scrutiny, they may also be entitled to keep some aspects of their private lives private. The fact that a politician runs for office does not automatically make that person’s life an open book.
We will be called upon to make judgments where private lives and public lives intersect. Those judgments should be based first on relevance, but also on compassion, and particularly so in the case of an ordinary private citizen. The potential damage of publishing a story that will embarrass a public official or that person’s family with what might be considered private facts in the life of a purely private citizen should be weighed against the public’s legitimate right and need to know.
Our duty as journalists is to report the events of the day that affect us and people in our community. We have to be thorough and aggressive, but we should also take care not to inflict unnecessary trauma, particularly when we cover crime or tragedy.
Keep in mind that our readers are growing more and more sensitive to the plight of victims and the families of victims. They will turn quickly on a newspaper they perceive as unfeeling.
In Virginia this is primarily an issue of fairness and credibility, not a legal matter. Virginia’s legal system recognizes no specific right of privacy. Of course, enough abuses by the media could change that.
All that notwithstanding, we should strive to interview and photograph victims and families of victims. They make tragedy real, help other people understand it. We have no particular right to talk with victims, nor they any obligation to us. You should use persuasion and sensitivity to gain access. Many victims or their families welcome the attention the press represents; they want to talk about what happened to them, or about the loved one who has become a victim.
Sometimes they don’t. That doesn’t mean we should give up. Sometimes an intermediary or an alternative approach can work: police, hospital officials, neighbors, a pastor, a letter. Whatever the case, your approach should be gentle and respectful. We should use special care when dealing with people under emotional strain or in circumstances of grief; we should treat them with as much kindness and understanding as possible.
In every such circumstance we should avoid any behavior that would be considered intrusive. If they don’t want to talk to us, take no for an answer – but ask politely if we might call back at some later time under less stressful conditions.
The Daily Press recognizes that reporters and photographers face a wide range of circumstances in the field. We expect you to use good judgment and discretion. And, as always, you should seek opportunities to discuss the situation with an editor.
Our main objective is to get the information – but not at the expense of victims and families who have suffered enough without our intrusion.
Decisions on identifying victims – minors, adults, relatives of public people – should be made on a case-by-case basis. This is a place where that red light-green light consideration occurs: Is there a good and compelling reason to publish? And does it outweigh the negative consequences?
As a general rule, we do not identify victims of sex crimes. We would discuss identifying a victim if the victim wants to be identified.
In sex crimes involving children molested by a relative or neighbor, identification of a suspect can amount to identification of the victim. We should carefully weigh the value of complete identification of the suspect or publication of the circumstances of the case against that potential collateral identification of the victim. Such collateral identification is best avoided, if possible.
Suicide: We generally do not cover suicides unless the identity of the victim or the circumstances of the death thrust the event into public.
Witnesses: More and more, witnesses to crime, particularly violent crime, are hesitant to be identified in the newspaper for fear of retribution by perpetrators. Logic and empirical experience weaken their cases, but their fear is frequently quite real. We should take care with witness identities – carefully consider the red light/green light equation – in pre-trial circumstances.
Even when a witness appears on the stand in a public trial, we may want to consider whether our clear right to identify that witness and any need to publish the name outweighs the potential danger to the witness or could tend to frighten the witness from the courtroom. We have seen important prosecutions of violent criminals fail in recent years because known witnesses have declined to appear in court. We have been asked by prosecutors to withhold witness identities, a request we’ve generally, but gently, resisted.
Law enforcement officials and state legislators are quick to seize on the real or imagined sins of the media in putting ordinary citizens in danger as justification for tightening their grip on public information. Our careful judgment in these cases should be considered an investment in freedom of information.
Background from the distant past: Take care when bringing up old sins: Is it necessary and relevant?
Headlines: Copy editors should be mindful of the effect they can have on victims. Headlines, photo captions and photo overlines on victim stories and photos should be serious and sensitive. Tragedy is no time for cute wordplay.
Play: Pay attention to unrelated stories that run near stories of tragedy. The kind of accidental proximity that seems so funny on the back of the Columbia Journalism Review is less so when you’re talking with a dead child’s mother.
Crime scenes: When covering a tragedy or a crime scene, reporters and photographers should be aware of their surroundings and conduct themselves in a professional manner.
Photographs of carnage: We generally shy away from photos of bodies or grievous or gruesome injuries, particularly in local cases. The green light for publishing a photograph of a body should be a very bright one. Here’s a place where a broad discussion – even bringing in relatives of a victim – can be of great value.
Wirephotos of bodies or gruesome scenes should also be subjected to the light of collective judgment. Experience tells us our readers are generally less concerned about seeing bodies from elsewhere than they are about the feelings of local families seeing the body of their loved one in a local paper. The case for publication, nonetheless, should still be a compelling one.
Depictions of grief: A photograph of a mother weeping over the death of a child can be a powerful image. But readers in recent years have shown less tolerance for such intrusions than might have been the case in ages past. They tend to view grief as a private matter, often see the newspaper as aggravating the grief – even if the grieving relative had no objection to being photographed. Such situations call for judgment.
But note: These moments pass quickly, so it’s often impossible to make a full judgment before the picture is made. A more complete consideration can take place over whether we’ll use the photograph in the paper. That judgment is rendered moot if we have no picture to judge.
If we feel a need to cover a funeral, we should contact the family or its representative to let them know of our interest. If a family vigorously objects, that may affect how we cover the event. A family may want to place restrictions on our newsgathering at a funeral; in most cases, we should accede to their needs.
Children: The danger of giving a strong appearance of exploitation is particularly acute when reporters deal with children, particularly children who are cast into or put themselves into adult situations, like being witness to a crime. In cases where no parent or other intervening authority stands between us and a child, we have a heightened obligation to consider the child’s interests.
A quotation from a kid who’s just being a kid can look very different in the paper than it sounded when he said it. So the use of children as sources calls for great restraint and careful judgment.
Much of what we publish each day in the newspaper comes to us from human sources. It takes human sources as well to lead us to or help us understand the documents we also consider sources. In short, our human sources are critical to our ability to publish a factual, complete and credible newspaper. They should be treated with courtesy and respect.
Keep in mind that sources are also readers. If they know us in person as less-than-admirable journalists, they will carry those feelings to their reading of the newspaper, and to their friends and neighbors. For that reason, even the way we interact with our sources becomes an issue of credibility.
A reporter should establish straightforward ground rules with regular sources, particularly regarding the nature of any conversation: Is this a politician speaking to a reporter or a casual conversation between acquaintances? The line between what was intended for the reporter and what was intended for the acquaintance is easily crossed, sometimes too casually. Misunderstandings frequently result.
Reporters should use special care when interviewing people who don’t regularly deal with the press. The rules that govern conversations with politicians and public relations people don’t necessarily apply when you’re interviewing a victim’s neighbor or a parent angry about school boundaries. A reporter might not – should not – hesitate to embarrass a politician for uttering something truly brainless on the record. A plain, ordinary citizen in those circumstances can be granted some leeway and extra courtesy.
Quotations are generally overused in newspaper writing. They should be reserved for those rare pithy statements that real people make, or for the precise recording of the twists and turns of politicians and others of short memory. Most of the time, a good writer can get the point across more clearly with a well-attributed paraphrase without quotation marks.
When the quotation is good enough to make the story, it must be precise and must fairly reflect the context of the conversation it came from. That means what goes inside quotation marks is exactly what the speaker said. If it’s not what the speaker said, then it should come out of quotation marks and into paraphrase.
But room must be left for judgment when we turn casual spoken language into a printed historical record. There may be no harm, for instance, in minor alteration of a quotation to correct small errors of grammar that might as easily have been in the ear of the reporter as the mouth of the speaker: “lie” vs. “lay,” “try to” instead of “try and,” subject-verb agreement, etc. Such grammatical conventions are frequently violated and forgotten in less formal spoken language but can glare out forever from a formal block of printed text.
By the same token, some grammatical lapses are clearly intentional: If the speaker said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” for instance, an alteration to standard English would yield ludicrous results.
Quotations – and even paraphrased quotations – should be presented within appropriate context. A change in the sequence of separate quotations should not be allowed to change the meaning or sense of the entire context, nor should it create any misleading or unfair impression. But a change of sequence IS allowed.
Ellipses may be used with care in a quotation to eliminate confusing or extraneous material or offensive language, but not to connect related quotations taken from different parts of a conversation. Paraphrasing is usually a better solution.
Parenthetical material inserted by the writer to clarify a quotation – to make clear the antecedent of an ambiguous pronoun – should be assiduously avoided. Readers find such insertions annoying; they’re speed bumps in a story. If the quote seems important, set it up more completely to clear up the ambiguity. If that won’t help, paraphrase in an indirect quotation.
Dialect that is not essential to the story should be avoided. Inappropriate use of dialect in print can convey a bundle of unintended messages: racism, classism, condescension, ridicule. The entire context of the story – its subject matter, its play, its tone and mood – provides the key to any judgment on the use of dialect.
Attribution is to a newspaper story what footnoting is to a dissertation. It lets readers know where our information comes from. Relatively little of what we report is based on our own direct observation; we rely mostly on information gathered from others: human sources, government documents, library research, etc.
The attribution we attach to the information we publish allows our readers to judge for themselves the quality of our sources and of the information those sources provide. It tells them we have done our homework, that we don’t just invent what we print.
Attribution – that litany of repeated “he said” or “she said” – comes under fire with some frequency from the writing experts. At the Daily Press, you should consider artistic quality a reasonable sacrifice at the altar of credibility. That means strong and solid attribution takes a higher priority than scintillating prose. This is journalism first, pretty writing second. If we can have both, so much the better.
When we attribute to documentary sources, we should be as specific as possible. Attribution to a specific piece of paper – an affidavit for a search warrant, a deposition taken on a specific date, a memorandum from the city manager to a subordinate – is far more credible than a generic “court records say” or “according to city records.” Those are the documentary equivalents of “courthouse sources” or “city hall sources.”
Part of any complete attribution is a complete identification of the source, particularly a human source. The motives of those who press their views upon journalists must be routinely examined, and, where appropriate, revealed to the reader. That way, the reader can judge just as the reporter did the quality of the information being presented, whether it’s from an impartial observer or from someone who gains by a particular spin on the truth.
Levels of attribution
Every reporter will and should have confidential relationships with sources in order to do the job. But it’s not news if you can’t print it, so it’s important to avoid being boxed in by your source.
A reporter’s job is to get information that can be published, fairly and accurately. Information that is “off the record” or not to be published in any form is generally useless. Sometimes off-the-record information is necessary to understand other information. But if you can learn something only on the condition that you can’t tell your readers, you may be better off not knowing it – at least, not from the source who wants to tangle you up.
When dealing with a source, a reporter should establish a set of ground rules at the outset regarding when an interview is on the record and when it is something less than that. The reporter should ensure that both reporter and source abide by those ground rules. As a habit, that should include all sources, whether it be Sen. John Doe, who should already know all the ground rules (but who may need to go over them with you anyway), or citizen Jane Dough, who has never talked to a reporter before.
The reporter should control when the source is speaking on the record or otherwise. Reserve the right to go back on the record and ask the source questions about off-the-record information.
Don’t be afraid to deny confidentiality. Often, the source will tell you the information anyway. The point is to publish, and information shrouded in doubt can be worse than nothing at all.
Most reporters are asked by a source, at one time or another, to go off the record, but few sources really understand what the term means. It’s important to establish with regular sources a set of standing ground rules – and make sure each time the issue arises that you and your source agree on the meaning of the terms you’re using.
Here are four levels of attribution reporters commonly use:
On the Record: Everything the source says may be used and attributed to the source.
Not For Attribution: The information the source provides may be used in a story, but the source must be disguised by use of such terms as “sources in City Hall say, etc.” This is really what most sources mean when they ask to go off the record. To use the information constitutes an agreement to keep the source’s identity confidential. Please read carefully the section of this code that deals with confidentiality agreements.
Background: A source provides information that you may use in a story, but you may not attribute the information in any way. You become the source of information: “The White House has a plan to exterminate gophers.” No attribution, no “sources said.” A Daily Press reporter who includes such information in a story can expect to be seriously challenged by an editor. “Background” and its shy cousin, “deep background,” are best left inside the Washington Beltway.
Off The Record: It means just what it says – the information the source provides is offered to the reporter to help her better understand a story (or to titillate her), but it may not be used in print in any way, shape or form.
A newspaper risks its credibility each time it bases a news report on the word of unnamed sources. Readers can’t independently evaluate the veracity of unidentified sources. Stories may lose their vitality and punch because they substitute faceless “sources” for real subjects with real problems and questions. And when we don’t name our sources, we leave room for our readers to wonder whether we just made the whole thing up.
Much of the reporting in the Watergate case was based – much of it for good reason – on information from confidential sources. History has proven the accuracy of most of that reporting. But at the time, the Republican spin docs were able to raise significant doubts among the faithful by citing the lack of specific attribution in the stories of Woodward and Bernstein and others.
If stories based on information from anonymous sources turn out to be wrong or unbalanced, the newspaper winds up losing its readers’ trust. Or worse: Anonymous sources make really lousy witnesses in libel litigation.
In short: Unnamed sources are best avoided, particularly where the information they provide is somehow accusatory.
In the rare instance where we feel the need to use unnamed sources in print, we should seek other corroborating, independent sources for the information.
We should avoid the use of unnamed sources in a story, in print, unless:
– We are convinced the information is of paramount importance to our readers.
– We believe the sources are reliable and truthful and have reason to know what they’re talking about.
– We have no other practical means of getting at the information.
Confidential sources in print should be considered our last resort, to be used when all other means fail and only in the context of a very important story. For that reason, our guidelines for their use amount to a high hurdle. We discourage the use of unnamed sources and underscore that notion with a policy that puts a great burden on reporters and editors who feel such use is unavoidable.
The best use a reporter can make of a confidential source is not for quotation in the newspaper but to lead to other sources, both human and documentary, that can be named in print. Ask your source to lead you to memoranda, contracts or minutes of public meetings, for example, or to give you enough information and names to provide a starting point for further reporting.
A promise of confidentiality is an arrangement struck between the Daily Press and the source — not between the reporter and the source. The Daily Press, as an institution, is promising anonymity, and it is putting the entire company behind that promise. The Supreme Court ruled in 1991 that a reporter’s promise of confidentiality can be construed as a contract between the source and the newspaper company. Reporters and media organizations that breach such confidentiality agreements can be held liable.
Only the newspaper’s chief executive, or his express designee, is empowered to enter into a contract on the newspaper’s behalf. The Editor, in this case, is that express designee.
That doesn’t mean a reporter has to track down the Editor to approve a grant of confidentiality before the interview can continue. A reporter is expected to use prudent judgment to negotiate the most advantageous terms to which the source will agree. A reporter is expected to make his team editor aware of those negotiations well before the Editor is involved. And in the end, if the Editor doesn’t like the deal the reporter and the team editor made, then we won’t use the information.
That’s the key: This is a use agreement. If we choose to use information from the source, that use occurs only under the terms of our agreement with the source. If we don’t like the terms, we don’t use the information in print. If we don’t quote the unnamed source, the source – and the deal – don’t exist.
Limits to a grant of confidentiality should be part of the negotiation of the agreement, which can continue right up until time of publication. Not all of these issues need to be settled before the interview begins.
– If you wish to use an anonymous source in a story, your editor must know who the source is. Other editors may also be told the name of the source, although you can discuss with your supervisor whether you can limit that number, to prevent accidental disclosure of the source.
– Confidentiality may be withdrawn, at the Editor’s discretion, if a source is found to have willfully misled the newspaper. In such a case, the source’s prevarication amounts to a breach of the contract for confidentiality. The reporter must make this particular issue clear to the source. That careful disclosure has a use beyond merely making the source aware so that there will be no surprises later. If the source starts backing away from what he’s told you at this point, you have reason to question the information he’s trying to get you to print.
– The Editor may wish to otherwise limit the guarantee or place conditions on it. For example, the agreement might allow the anonymity to be voided if we become the subject of a lawsuit springing from the information the anonymous source has provided.
Characterization of the source in print should be as specific as possible without violating the agreement of confidentiality. You should discuss with the source how he will be identified in print. Explain to the source that we need to be as specific as possible to provide at least some basis for the reader to judge the source’s credibility.
A reporter should always make clear to the source that if we can get the information elsewhere, we have the right to use it in a story without the source’s consent.
Identify a person or group by race only when such identification is relevant or is an essential element of the story; introduce race to a story only when it is an issue of relevance to the story.
The race of a speaker in a debate over lunch prices probably is not relevant; the race of a speaker in a debate over busing might be. Similarly, race makes no difference most of the time when neighbors protest a smelly sewer plant – but it’s a major element if a black group thinks an all-white city commission ignored its protests because of racism.
In police stories – where the issue of racial identification typically arises most often – the race of either a criminal suspect or a victim generally is immaterial and should not be included. A possible exception is when there is substantial reason to believe that a crime is racially motivated. When race is a central issue of the story, racial identifications should be used only when they are important to the readers’ understanding of what has happened and why it has happened. In all cases, you should avoid reporting that needlessly stigmatizes any group or that could needlessly increase racial tension.
Descriptions of at-large criminals are intended to assist in their apprehension. Use of descriptions, when available, is encouraged. When such descriptions are used, race is an important element. But use of a racial description without other supporting characteristics amounts to a gratuitous identification by race.
A good description should include the following:
– Approximate height, weight or body build and hair color.
– Distinguishing characteristics such as facial hair, scars, large nose, etc.
– Clothing descriptions, including color of clothing.
– The time and place of the crime, whether the suspect fled on foot or in a car, description of car etc.
– Additional illumination regarding race: a light-skinned black male, a white male with dark complexion.
Not all of those elements are necessary before a description that includes race can be used. But the more detail that can be provided, the better. Descriptions should not be used when they are so lacking in detail that large segments of the population could meet them. Saying that a robbery was committed by a tall black male with a handgun doesn’t cut it. But if we decide there are enough elements to use a description, that description should include the suspect’s race. To leave out the race defeats the purpose of the description.
Be especially careful when a suspect is described as Hispanic. There are white Hispanics and black Hispanics. How informed is that description, and how relevant? On what is it based? Language? Complexion? Could the suspect be of Mediterranean origin instead of Hispanic? Unless those offering the description are certain and specific, consider whether it is better to simply state the factors that led to the belief that the suspect was Hispanic – language, complexion, whatever.
Also, avoid the general police descriptions of suspects as being Jamaican or Haitian. Too often those labels are applied without sufficient factual foundation and serve as a police-blotter code for a gratuitous racial identification. Instead, use the descriptive factors that led to the label, such as language, complexion or immigration status. Consider that a Jamaican, for instance, is a citizen of Jamaica, a fact for which police officers using that descriptive typically have no basis. Also consider that a Jamaican might look a lot like a South Carolinian.
Follow the same guidelines for racial description when police ask for help in identifying a dead body.
If you’re not sure a description is complete enough for publication, talk it up with your editor. If you’re not certain whether race is germane or essential to the story (or even if you think you are), talk about that as well. These decisions deserve discussion of the specific circumstances at hand and the application of collaborative judgment from more than one perspective.
Gratuitous offensive language has no place in a newspaper intended for circulation to a general audience. The definition of what is offensive should be judged narrowly against the dictates of reasonable taste and community standards, and against the value and relevance of the potentially offensive language.
It’s useful to keep in mind when you’re thinking of community standards that some readers may be deeply offended by what others might consider mild exclamations. Many object to details of human sexual or excretory anatomy even in the straightest and most relevant of scientific terms, particularly if those terms come in large doses or large type.
It should go without saying that our own prose should avoid even such mild terms as “hell” or “damn,” or the unfortunately ubiquitous “sucks.” We can exercise complete control over our own language.
However, we can’t control the language of our sources, and we can’t make the world adhere to any particular standard of language. So you should consider this policy directed largely toward material that falls within quotation marks.
The Daily Press has long avoided creating a mechanism for deleting expletives: this many dots or that many dashes or which letters we’ll include so that readers can work out the missing ones to figure out the word. That’s by design: We don’t want to take the insertion of offensive language into the paper that lightly, even when it’s encrypted.
The greatest of care and good judgment should be exercised where language of the four-letter variety (and a few terms with fewer or more letters) is involved. The same goes for “hate” language, particularly terms directed toward minority ethnic, national or religious groups.
Context and relevance and necessity should rule our judgment. Is the language itself at issue? Did it come from the lips of a particularly visible public figure? Was it uttered in a privileged setting (like a courtroom or a city council meeting), or a private interview? Did thousands of people hear it, or just a reporter?
If you and your editor determine that the offensive terminology is indeed important and relevant to the story, then talk about reasonable ways of working around direct use of extremely rough language. Its importance does not make it any less offensive.
A hallmark of credibility is admitting fault. We make no pretense of perfection; to do so would bring our credibility into question. To preserve our credibility and to set the record straight, we must strive to correct any factual error that appears in the newspaper, no matter what the magnitude of the error.
It is the duty of every News Department employee to point out when an error has been made and to bring to the attention of an appropriate editor that a correction is necessary. Even in cases where the error and its remedy are patently obvious — like an incorrect jump destination — we should correct simply to acknowledge to our readers that we are aware of the error.
Corrections in the Daily Press will not direct blame within the newspaper, such as specifying whether a mistake occurred in reporting or in copy editing. If the error occurs in an identifiable column – like Spencer or Answer Editor or Radar – we will identify the column as the location of the error. When the error was clearly and unquestionably caused by a source, we may specify that the source was at fault.
Whenever possible, the correction should be prepared by the staff member who originated the error. So that editors handling the correction know the basis of the error, an explanation, not for publication, should be attached to the correction.
A correction should clearly indicate where and when the error occurred. It should clearly indicate what the error was, unless doing so would tend to unnecessarily perpetuate the error.
A headline on the front of Friday’s Sports section on a story about the Hampton-Kecoughtan high school football game incorrectly reported that Hampton won the game 20-17. Kecoughtan won 20-17.
The Jim Spencer column in Wednesday’s Local section incorrectly reported that Jack W. Davis Jr. is editor of the Daily Press. Davis is the newspaper’s president and publisher.
An item in the club calendar in Thursday’s Newport News Life section incorrectly reported that the Warwick Woman’s Club would hold its spring bazaar on Sunday. The bazaar will be held today from noon to 6 p.m. at the Warwick Memorial Baptist Church, 107 Hoopes Road. For more information, call 555-8888.
All corrections must be approved before publication by a senior editor.
A word to those who write and edit corrections before that point: Don’t further nettle the approving senior editor by leaving a lot of work to be done to the correction. If it lacks complete clarity, fix it. If you haven’t actually looked at the error as it appeared in print, you should do so before submitting the correction. If you don’t know which edition the error appeared in, you should find out. The editor who checks these things off is already not particularly joyful about the task, which always comes at the end of a long day. More aggravation will not sit well.
A final admonition regarding corrections: Having to publish a correction is necessary but also painful. Having to correct a correction will be significantly more so.
Manipulation of photographic images
The objective of photojournalists has always been to cover the news truthfully. That objective is the same as a reporter’s. Only the tools are different. Just because technology has changed the photographer’s tools doesn’t mean it has changed our ethical standards as well.
Adobe PhotoShop and the Macintosh are not inherently evil devices. Computers don’t lie, people do. If we didn’t alter the content of news photos when we were slopping prints in chemicals (it WAS possible then, only much more difficult), we won’t when we are using software to handle our images.
We have avoided hard-and-fast rules regarding this issue, because what is right or wrong in the manipulation of pictures requires the simple application of good judgment, intellectual honesty and common sense. It depends also on the context of each situation. What is acceptable on the cover of a youth-oriented weekend magazine may be unethical on the front page.
News photos: Every photo on a news page must be real. Don’t alter content. Dodging, burning and cleaning off dust specks are exercises that require the same common sense we’ve used in the past.
There is one absolute: If the final product misleads the reader, it is wrong.
If what is recorded on film has a tendency to mislead – even if it’s clearly real – explain in the caption. A couple of examples: a photo taken through a long lens that compresses distance, or one that makes a small item appear larger than life size. If a photo is set up, or the photo opportunity provided is somewhat misleading, help make things clear in the caption or don’t use the photo.
Photo illustrations: If you have a reason to alter a photograph to make a valid point, that photo is no longer a news photo — and no longer appropriate in a context where it will look like one. It is an illustration and should be clearly labeled as such.
Often, just the label “Illustration by .|.|.” – typically in small print – is not enough. It is a good idea to discuss any photo-manipulation technique used in the illustration in the caption, just as you might tell the reader a long lens was used to compress the background in a straight news photo. But keep in mind: A photo can leave a misleading impression quickly and from a distance in a way that small type of any kind can’t remedy properly.
Readers are used to looking at photos as a statement of fact. They understand that illustrations drawn by hand are not real. They have some trouble with the concept of photographic illustrations drawn by hand, mostly because they can be made to look very real.
For that reason, we should avoid photo illustrations whose effects are so subtle that they can’t be quickly discerned. If you are manipulating a photo for effect on a feature page, make sure it crosses the border between illustration and reality clearly. For instance, if you are going to use a photo of a personality and want to stylize it, mangle it enough that no reader can interpret it as a straight photograph – and make sure it looks as if it was done on purpose and is not just bad reproduction.
Allowing a source or a subject to see a proposed story before publication in the newspaper is a relatively rare practice among journalists. There is no intrinsic journalistic reason for that reluctance. In fact, pre-publication review of stories or parts of stories should be considered a helpful and useful part of the newsgathering process.
There is no obligation on the part of the reporter or the newspaper at any time to allow a pre-publication review. At the same time, the idea should not be rejected out of hand.
If a source or subject asks to see a story before publication, the reporter and her editor should consider allowing such a preview. Such pressing matters as deadlines may make such a preview impractical. Other factors, like potential loss of competitive advantage, should also be considered.
And, of course, ground rules should be established. Allowing the preview does not relinquish editorial control, nor does it turn the source and the source’s friends, colleagues and mother-in-law into the last word on the story. Without such an understanding in advance, the negotiation over the story can turn messy. Let a source or a main character check for facts or, perhaps, overall tone and direction. That helps to limit the potential arguments.
In some cases, like complex scientific stories in which we are depending on our ability to translate the arcane knowledge of a source into ordinary and understandable language, it may be to the advantage of the reporter and the newspaper’s readers to seek a pre-publication review of the story.
If in the course of a pre-publication review the subject of the story raises serious objection on the basis of such issues as the story’s use of private facts, we should carefully consider whether the objection has merit.
Notes from research for a story can be helpful if a legal action results: A claim that a quote was inaccurate, for instance, is less credible in the face of meticulous notes that show what the speaker said.
Notes can also be harmful: If the notes are not meticulous – if they’re the chickenscratch common to most speed scribblers – they can give that same claim great weight. Worse: A reporter’s marginal notes and memory joggers can provide all kinds of ugly fodder for a plaintiff’s inquisitive lawyers.
Because there’s no clear answer on whether saving your notes is a beneficial or dangerous practice, we have no crisp policy on the issue. Whether you preserve your notes depends on your good judgment. But here’s some guidance so that our practice across the newsroom will be at least somewhat consistent.
If you have a good reason to keep your notes, keep them. If you have no particular reason to do so, don’t. The good reasons to preserve your notes are more likely to be practical journalistic matters than legal issues.
You might want to save notes from a routine story you think will be worth a follow-up story within a finite period of time, like months. Drop them into a bob-up file with a specific date on it.
There’s probably no reason to save the notes from a quick feature interview or a routine City Council meeting. There’s little likelihood you’ll ever need them again for journalistic purposes.
The guiding term is judgment. Tossing a notebook into a file drawer after it’s filled because you’ve always done it that way doesn’t qualify. Nor does the idea that you might conceivably have use for the notes at some future time in ways you can’t imagine at the moment, but it’s possible.
In part, you can consider this a practical issue: If every reporter saved every note and every file, we’d be buried under our own paper in a matter of weeks.
Computerized files (the notes you’ve taken on your terminal from a phone interview or your outline of a story, for instance) or electronic mail files you’ve used in your reporting should be considered notes in the same way your scribbles in a reporter’s notepad are. Dispose of them in the same way.
One word of caution that’s probably not necessary: If you have your notes and files at the point where a hint of legal action arises, you must not discard or destroy them. They’re potential evidence in a legal proceeding you know or have reason to believe is pending, and destruction of evidence is a criminal act. Bundle up your materials and make sure they’re in a safe place, like in the hands of your editor or our lawyers.
Electronic recording devices
We should not audio- or videotape interviews without the knowledge of those being taped.
A tape recorder can be handy for backing up your notes in a sensitive interview or for recording a question-and-answer session where furious note-taking would detract from the interview. Generally, though, use of a tape recorder should be reserved for such select circumstances.
Virginia law does not require the consent of both parties for the recording of a telephone conversation. So recording without the permission of the other party is legal (although questions can arise regarding an interstate telephone conversation).
But we consider recording a conversation without the consent of the other party an unacceptable practice. If you wish to record the conversation, make a point of asking for the other party’s permission. You should capture both the request and the consent on tape.
If the other party objects, turn the recorder off.
Deception in newsgathering
Deceptive practices such as misrepresentation, trickery, impersonation and the use of hidden tape recorders or cameras in newsgathering can seriously undermine a newspaper’s credibility and trustworthiness. These practices fall outside the bounds of generally accepted journalistic behavior at the Daily Press. An editor confronted with a decision to exceed those bounds should meet these minimum conditions:
Public importance: The expected news story should be of such vital public interest that its news value clearly outweighs the damage to trust and credibility that might result from the use of deception.
Alternatives: The approach to the story cannot reasonably be recast to avoid the need to deceive.
Last resort: All other reasonable means of getting the story have been exhausted.
Editor’s approval: The decision to use deception must be approved at the highest level of the newsroom, after thorough discussion.
Disclosure: The deceptive practices and the reasons they were used must be disclosed in print at the time the story is published.
In addition to meeting those conditions, an editor should ask these questions:
– Was the decision to deceive discussed, as thoroughly and broadly as feasible, and do other staffers generally accept the decision?
– Will readers and staff members tend to agree that the story justified the deception?
Datelines traditionally reflect where the reporter is writing or reporting the story. But that can be a misleading signal to readers when the story is somewhere the reporter isn’t. Readers use datelines to shop stories the same way they use headlines. Take, for example, all those meaningless datelines from Nicosia, Cyprus, where the reporters sample the local grapes in relative comfort and listen to the radio for stories from Beirut and other neighborhood trouble spots.
The trouble with the old rules about datelines is that they were invented before modern telecommunications came along, and they haven’t changed.
Generally, however, the heart of the old rules applies: When you’re where the story is, that’s the dateline.
When you’re writing a story about someplace else — for example, when the action is in Richmond or Washington and you’re in Newport News — leave the dateline off the story. Where you sat when you used the telephone is irrelevant, but a dateline of one of those remote places would improperly lead a reader to believe you were there.
When you’re writing about someplace else within the greater Hampton Roads area, regardless of where you are, dateline the story where its main action occurred. For instance, a reporter working a story about a crime in West Point by telephone from the Williamsburg office would use a West Point dateline.