USA – Tampa Tribune (2002)

Ethics Policy of the Tampa Tribune Newsroom, published 16 May 2002.

People ought to trust us. It irks us when they don’t.

All we have are our principles.

We have forgone lucrative careers in medicine, business and law in order to defend democracy, free speech and the American way. Without us, Ann Landers would be just another know-it-all.

Prominent correction: Some of us failed science and math.

Readers don’t know our sacrifices.

We suffer through elections without benefit of bumper stickers. We know which politicians are idiots but can’t scream it in a crowded room.

We lunch with millionaires but can’t let them pick up the check.

Meanwhile, our siblings, who drive better cars, expect us to shower them with Bucs tickets and Disney passes. Our neighbors, who boast of knowing us, want publicity. We fail, unable to profile their tire stores on Page 1.

We feel quietly superior at high school reunions. But that’s pretty much the end to the fun.

Credibility is a platform for words and ideas.

Without it, no one can hear us.

It’s not a stomping ground for our personal viewpoints.

And it can’t take the weight of our personal gain.

Anonymous sources
It’s sometimes necessary, but seldom a good idea, to quote an unnamed source. Likewise for using fictitious names.

When we do so, we in effect tell readers: “Trust us.”

The more we ask for trust, the less we seem to deserve it.

By not revealing a source, we vouch for the veracity of what’s said. That puts our own credibility on the line.

So we ought to be judicious in bestowing anonymity.

A few thoughts:

1. Exhaust other options. Don’t stop interviewing. Will someone else go on the record, now that you know, or seem to know, the story?

Example: A Tampa surgeon cuts the wrong foot off a patient. We learn of it from an insider who does not wish to be identified. The hospital spokesman won’t comment. The surgeon won’t comment. We don’t know the patient’s name. An editor suggests calling hospital board members. One goes on the record, confirming our report.

2. Talk it over with an editor. Is the interview even worth using, given the ground rules? If a reporter and team leader can’t agree, get a senior editor involved.

Be careful what you promise sources. Assure anonymity in print, when necessary. But editors may need the source’s identity to make an informed decision. The source may have burned us before.

3. Grant anonymity only if someone’s professional, financial or physical well-being are at stake – or if the subject matter suggests a need for privacy. For instance, stories about AIDS, impotence, personal debt, divorce, incontinence, rape and child abuse may require anonymity for candor.

4. Be skeptical of a source’s motives and be fair: Don’t permit anonymous character attacks.

5. When quoting unnamed sources, describe their credentials as thoroughly as possible without jeopardizing identity. Make sure the source is comfortable with the description.

Fictitious or composite characters aren’t allowed, except in cases of obvious exaggeration.

These guidelines do not preclude confidential conversations between reporters and sources, sometimes necessary in the news-gathering process. It’s OK to go off the record, and reporters should guard the integrity of their relationships with sources.

But published material, in general, ought to be clearly attributed.

Civic activity
Few other ethical issues cause more head scratching.

We’re supposed to be plugged into the community, able to recognize the heart and soul of our neighbors. Yet we’re also supposed to be neutral about the issues that concern them.

The compromise: Be independent but not detached.

And if a conflict emerges, declare it.

Don’t give up your right to be a citizen. Just be cautious when choosing civic bedfellows, particularly if you cover a beat.

There are only a few hard-and-fast rules: Don’t join fund-raising arms of political parties. Avoid organizations with hot agendas, such as abortion rights or gun control. Don’t take a stand on something you cover.

Join a church, but stay away from religious lobbying groups.

Don’t sign petitions. Research before you sign a check.

Join the Sierra Club, hoping for a few good canoe trips, and your dollars may pay for local opposition to a road. It’s not so embarrassing if you’re the food writer, but what if you cover roads?

The environmental reporter shouldn’t belong to Greenpeace. The education reporter shouldn’t run for PTA office. Otherwise, professional, humanitarian, cultural, environmental, support, alumni, hobbyist, athletic and neighborhood associations pose few risks.

Use common sense.

The AARP is one of America’s largest lobbying groups, but membership likely won’t cause a conflict.

Generally, it’s fine to volunteer with groups such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Habitat for Humanity, the Spring or local theater companies – but don’t let your Tribune connection be exploited for publicity.

Civic activity may demand a case-by-case consideration. Don’t hesitate to get others’ opinions.

See also “Political activity.”

However tempting, it’s unethical to mine professional contacts for personal gain.

That means no personal letters on Tribune stationery. No threats, overt or implicit, of retaliation or pressure. No using your position to get better seats at a concert or a table in an already booked restaurant. No attempts to speed up personal business with public agencies.

No benefiting from unpublished information.

Financial reporters and editors shouldn’t own stock in Tampa area companies, excluding mutual funds. Nor should they own stock in companies they might reasonably anticipate covering. If a conflict emerges, someone else should do the story.

We shouldn’t use our beats to look for better jobs. If a source – a political candidate, for instance – offers a job, the offer should be disclosed to an editor, so as not to jeopardize the newspaper’s appearance of impartiality.

See also “Paying our way.”

There’s no hiding from a correction. It’s like a blemish. Coworkers who didn’t even read your story will manage to see the correction.

Nobody likes the embarrassment.

But in correcting mistakes, we reaffirm to readers our intent to get things right.

Corrections and clarifications appear on the section front in which the error occurred. They shouldn’t repeat a mistake but should contain enough detail for clarity.

If incorrect information was provided to the Tribune, we should say so, but we shouldn’t engage in internal finger-pointing in print.

A team leader should be made immediately aware of factual errors and misleading statements, and should sign off on the correction.

We flinch at one-source stories. They seem incomplete.

But how about one-race stories?

It’s false and misleading to put African-Americans on the sports page and in the crime log, if general reporting automatically defaults to a backdrop of white voters, white Girl Scouts and white commuters.

It’s our job to reflect the community. Each day’s newspaper creates a snapshot of the Tampa Bay area. The snapshot shouldn’t overlook minority members. Nor, in an attempt to feature aspects of race, ethnicity or religion should we overstate the differences among us, while ignoring our common ground.

We must not lose the nuances of individuality by casting a community through a high-contrast filter.

Diverse voices should be woven into the everyday fabric of the newspaper.

Do Muslims tell us about Ramadan but offer no opinions on education, zoning or Monica Lewinsky? Must a disability be a news peg? Aren’t people in wheelchairs also parents and taxpayers?

While we seek diverse voices, we avoid labeling individuals. Unless relevant, we don’t identify someone’s race or ethnicity in a story.

Nor do we imply that any one person speaks for others by virtue of a common denominator such as race or gender.

Crime suspects should be identified by race only if it is part of a complex description. Unacceptable: “a black male in his 40s.” Acceptable: “a light-skinned black man with freckles and short, graying hair, wearing khaki slacks and driving a blue Escort.” One description merely perpetuates a stereotype. The other may solve a crime.

Lastly, we don’t repeat slurs without good reason, such as when a public figure speaks inappropriately.

It’s good to get both sides but even better to get all sides.

Insight is our constant goal, even in the shortest of stories.

If we quote the advocates and the naysayers, we should also consider the undecided, the compromised and the confused. We must seek out the silent.

Before sullying a person’s reputation, we should make every effort to elicit a response, even at the expense of delayed publication, when possible.

If we’ve reported criminal charges, we should report verdicts in corresponding court cases, especially when the accused is acquitted. If an arrest drew prominent play, the acquittal demands equally prominent play.

It’s permissible to take on freelance assignments, as long as they don’t interfere with regular duties or compete directly with The Tribune. Competing publications usually are considered to be those within the circulation area.

Supervisors should be told.

Work done for The Tribune becomes the newspaper’s property. Stories and photographs can’t be resold. That doesn’t preclude staff members from rewriting or photographing familiar subjects for new markets after publication in The Tribune.

Company equipment, including camera gear and computers, should not be used for freelance ventures.

The employee manual also addresses outside employment.

Nobody bribes us with bundles of cash.

But if tins of cheddar popcorn were gold, we’d be rich.

On any given day, free stuff loads the newsroom mailboxes.

The general rule: Accept no gifts.

That includes food, alcohol, clothing, tickets, travel offers, sample products and offers of free services.

For the sake of sanity, items of token value (under $10) are exempt. Other stuff should be returned or donated to charity. The readers’ desk will maintain a charity bin and preprinted gift return cards. (No raiding the bin!)

The logistics:

1. If you receive a gift of value from a source, subject or reader, return it by mail or in person. Write a note or use a preprinted gift return card.

Example: “The crystal toad is adorable, but I must return it. We can’t accept gifts. Maybe I did, as you say, overlook a few warts, but the chocolate mousse was ribeting.”

2. Mass mailings from marketing companies require less delicate treatment. Put the gift in the charity bin and send a gift return card to the giver.

3. Review copies of books, music CDs, software and videos – in effect, press releases – may be kept by the reviewer. It’s OK for writers to keep reference copies: a food writer might keep a cookbook for future use.

Otherwise, review materials should be donated to charity. They should never be sold or traded at commercial outlets.

4. Perishables, by nature, are handled differently.

Food may be offered up for newsroom consumption, within reason. Return all sides of beef and cases of caviar. All alcohol should be returned.

Fresh flowers may be kept, but consider intent: A $100 arrangement from a developer grateful for publicity should be returned. Not so for a daisy basket from a reader, delighted we noticed his 100th birthday.

If in doubt about what’s appropriate, talk to an editor.

People have a right to know they’re talking to a reporter before an interview begins.

We don’t sneak around trying to trick people into talking.

In rare instances, a reporter may require candid, first-hand knowledge of how an agency, company or individual behaves. Senior news management should first approve of any such activity.

Newsroom independence
Increasingly, reporters and editors hear of relations forged between The Tribune’s advertising and promotions departments and the business community – unique arrangements with a stadium, a shopping mall, a housing development.

It’s important to remember that the newsroom’s impartial voice exists independently of all other departments.

News is news. Advertising is advertising. News content is not dictated by advertising sales. Advertisers attempting to influence coverage deserve only a polite refusal.

Similarly, the editorial staff expresses the newspaper’s opinion as a business. The editorial board, by nature, attempts to persuade, commenting on community issues.

Columnists enjoy similar latitude, although columnists should not use news pages to promote candidates, legislation or referendum issues.

Likewise, news pages are not an appropriate venue for a reporter or editor’s crusade or cause.

Online journalism
The Internet’s unique characteristics do not lower the standards by which we evaluate, gather and disseminate information.

Material gathered online should be verified.

Material disseminated online should be solidly confirmed.

The ability to change information around the clock does not lessen the need for accuracy.

Paying for news
We barely pay reporters, let alone sources.

Be wary of anyone offering information for money. We never pay for news, and the very attempt to solicit payment raises questions about truthfulness and motives.

We do, of course, pay material costs such as copying expenses for documents.

Paying our way
Food: Restaurant critics dine anonymously, so there’s seldom a scramble for the bill. However, critics, columnists and other journalists are sometimes recognized, and owners may try to sweeten the experience by dismissing the check or adding a complimentary bottle of wine. While sometimes awkward, we must pay our way.

Example: You’re on a restaurant review. Dick Greco stops by the table to say hello. Minutes later, the owner is at Greco’s table. Not long after, the owner brings you a bottle of wine “”on the house.” Geez: Does he know you’re from The Tribune? Does he just think you’re Greco’s friend? Either way, if you drink the wine, you pay.

When dining with sources, pick up the check … or take turns. Our standards differ from those of the regular business world, and it’s incumbent upon us to explain the rules.

Do so in a way that doesn’t make people feel like crooks. Sometimes it helps to explain that the newspaper will reimburse you.

None of this precludes common sense.

Reporters aren’t expected to go hungry just because there’s no way to pay for the buffet at a conference or sporting event. Sometimes there’s nowhere else to go without missing what you’re there to cover. But news-savvy organizers may know of your concern and already have a plan in place to allow you to pay.

We don’t take free tickets, unless they’re free to anyone.

We can’t ask for them, and we can’t use them, whether delivered in person or unsolicited by mail. We can’t give them away to family, friends or coworkers. We should send them back with an explanation or a gift return card. Otherwise, donors may assume we used them.

If we want tickets, we stand in line like the rest of the world. It builds character. It reminds us how much average people pay for mediocre performances. Likewise for admission to sporting events. Ethics would not spare us the joy of a foul ball to the upper, upper, upper tier.

We shouldn’t accept special treatment, either on or off the job.

Exceptions exist.

Concert and theater promoters may set aside press seating for critics. We accept the convenience but pay for the tickets. Critics should sample acoustics throughout the arena. We pay when possible.

We can’t buy seats at movie preview screenings or in the press box during athletic events, but competitively, we can’t afford not to be there.

We don’t pay for stage or field access when photographing musicians or athletes. But we don’t sell, lend or give away credentials.

Credentials are tools. If we aren’t taking notes or shooting pictures, we should question their use.

Regularly, the Tribune promotions department gets tickets to dinners and events in exchange for sponsorship. Those tickets, obtained through the business arm of the newspaper, may be enjoyed without restraint when distributed to the staff.

During any business trips, we cover our own travel costs.

That includes travel with political candidates and sports teams.

In charter situations, we pay our share of total costs.

Under special circumstances, senior newsroom management may approve of different arrangements, such as when military transport is the only way to reach a disaster scene or war zone.

Media days at theme parks and other attractions are off limits, unless we’re covering the event, as in the debut of a ride. Such previews shouldn’t be parlayed into family outings.

Commercially sponsored media parties … including those staged during political conventions and Super Bowl festivities … create conflicts and should be avoided. In some cases, they may offer newsgathering opportunities. If you go, attempt to pay. If in doubt, talk with an editor before going.

We don’t accept free or reduced-price travel to research travel stories. If freelancers take free or reduced-price accommodations, we should say so in print.

Photographs should remain truthful in spirit, manipulated only through quality enhancements such as burning, dodging, contrast control, color balancing, spotting and cropping.

We don’t stage, re-enact or recreate news events for photos. Personality portraits and studio illustrations shouldn’t create an artificial sense of spontaneity. Photo illustrations, computer enhancements, colorized and composite photographs should be labeled as such, out of regard for the public’s trust.

Removing or adding an object in an editorial photograph is not permitted.

Nor is flopping a photograph.

Readers deserve accuracy and honesty, whether viewing an image or reading words. Their eyes may deceive them, but the newspaper should not.

Please, only original work.

If you borrow a clever idea, joke, turn of phrase or unique observation, give the author credit, and maybe one day, someone will grant you the same courtesy.

Political activity
No running for public office. No working for a candidate, government agency or special interest group.

No placards, buttons or bumper stickers, on your person, desk, car or yard.*

No campaign contributions.

No political demonstrations marches or rallies.

No giving advice to candidates.

Yes, by all means, you should vote.

Political affiliation is a matter of public record. It’s an individual choice, but some reporters find it prudent to declare “”no party” when registering to vote.

* In the interest of marital harmony, the newspaper does not attempt to control the activities of spouses. But if a spouse becomes active in a political campaign or public cause, please tell an editor.

Radio, TV, personal appearances
If you’re going to be a star, clear it first with your supervisor.

Newsroom staff may appear as unpaid panelists and guests on radio and television shows, with prior approval.

Professional standards don’t change with the migration to airwaves. A news reporter should remain impartial, while a columnist or editorial writer will be free to express opinions.

Don’t say anything you wouldn’t be willing to write, and don’t scoop The Tribune on significant news.

Steve Otto gets to humiliate family members in print.

Others should stick to covering strangers.

Exceptions may be made for first-person accounts, but generally, we don’t write, photograph or make news judgments regarding relatives, close friends, business partners or romantic interests.

Friendships and relationships, while a matter of personal choice, may limit the sorts of stories we may write or edit.

It’s a conflict, for instance, to write a feature on a friend’s business, to date a police officer while covering police, or to edit a child abuse story if married to a caseworker.

Ethics: Winging it
The ethical decisions we face can’t all be covered here.

Even if they were, there’s little to keep a crafty journalist from finding ways to benefit between the lines.

Consider this code to be a yardstick. See how your own situations measure up to the spirit of these words.

If it’s not on the list, talk it over among people whose values you trust.

Think critically.

All we have are our principles.

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