Newsroom Ethics Policy of the Statesman Journal, Salem, Ore., adopted October 1994.
Preamble: We at the Statesman Journal hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards. Our first responsibility is to our readers and our community. Our biggest asset is our credibility, which stems from the decisions we make and the way that we make them.
As the capital city’s newspaper, we have a special obligation to hold those in power accountable and promote the democratic process.
We recognize that we ourselves are a powerful community institution and will hold ourselves accountable and open to the scrutiny of others.
This ethics code is a statement of our principles and is not intended to cover every situation. Ethical decision-making should be carried out with as wide of discussion as possible.
Guiding principle one: Seek truth and report it
We will be honest, fair and courageous in reporting, gathering, editing and presenting information. Telling the truth must be our ethical cornerstone, the principle against which we weigh all other considerations. We will:
Strive for accuracy in fact and context.
Work to ensure the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to public.
Treat all sides fairly. Be aware of our personal biases and not let them affect our selection, gathering or presentation of news.
Seek out subjects of news stories or their representatives to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations against them or comments about them.
Identify our sources of information and quotations. Unattributed quotes or shielded identities must be cleared with editors and explained to readers. When possible, edit wire copy to avoid reliance on unnamed quotes.
Keep interviews on-the-record, as a general practice. Before agreeing to go off-the-record or on-background, ask yourself these questions:
1. Have I made every attempt to get the source on-the-record?
2. Will I be able to verify information with on-the-record sources?
3. What are the source’s motives?
4. Do my source and I agree on the meaning of terms like “off-the-record,” and “not-for-attribution”?
5. What are the long-term and incremental consequences of going off-the-record? If I agree this time, will it make it harder to get on-record information from the source in the future? Will other sources begin demanding to go off-the-record?
6. How far am I willing to go to protect the source?
Take our agreements to keep a source confidential seriously, with full awareness of possible legal consequences. Realize that we can never make absolute promises of confidentiality. When possible, consult an editor before or immediately after agreeing to confidentiality.
Be law abiding, honest and forthcoming in newsgathering techniques. In rare cases when they are used, undercover methods will be cleared with top editors and explained to readers.
Never stereotype by race, gender, age, religion, ethnic group, sexual orientation, disability or social status.
Seek unofficial sources for every story where possible and appropriate. Make sure our content reflects the full diversity of the communities we cover.
Distinguish news from advertising.
Label photo illustrations and montages.
Take care that headlines, billboards and promotional material do not sensationalize, misrepresent or oversimplify.
Maintain independence between the opinion pages and the news columns. Distinguish analysis and commentary from hard news.
Avoid posing news photographs, except portraits and photo illustrations. Clearly indicate in the cutline if a photo has been posed.
Guiding Principle Two: Minimize Harm
We treat sources, readers and colleagues with courtesy and respect. We are judged by how we act, not just what we publish. We realize that what we publish can do harm. These concerns should not always override our duty to tell the truth, but must be weighed in our decision making. We will:
Avoid quoting profanity or racially offensive remarks, but recognize there are cases when printing them is appropriate. Any such use should be cleared by a supervising editor.
Exercise care when intruding on grief and other private situations.
Take care when dealing with potentially offensive photos, particularly accident or dead body photos. We should not withhold sensitive photos just because they might offend. But we should temper our journalistic impulses with questions about how we will affect readers and subjects. Seek discussion.
Avoid disclosing suicides in obituaries and routine news stories. Exceptions will be made if a prominent person was involved or the death became a public event or spectacle.
Avoid abusing or exploiting inexperienced sources.
Routinely name persons suspected of a crime only after they have been arrested. Exceptions in local or wire stories will be cleared with top editors.
Because of our community’s concern about youth crime, we will name juveniles age 15 or older charged with a violent crime. We will consider naming juveniles younger than 15 or those of any age charged with non-violent crimes in certain newsworthy circumstances.
Before identifying the victim of a crime without their consent, consider any further harm that the naming of a victim might do. In routine, minor crime stories, we will typically not name victims. In higher profile stories, we typically will. In the case of sex crimes and those involving juvenile victims, we will not identify the victim without consent. We will withhold exact addresses of residences, unless there is a compelling reason to print them.
Guiding Principle Three: Act Independently
We will report the news “without fear or favor.” Our credibility is our most valuable asset.
The appearance of a conflict can be just as damaging as the reality. We will:
Pay our own way, whenever appropriate. Journalists covering sporting events, plays, movie screenings and other events may attend without paying if that is the generally accepted practice.
Refuse “comp” tickets, discounted admissions and junkets for anyone not covering an event. Pay our own transportation costs to assignments when possible. Other situations will be discussed on a case-by-case basis.
Do not keep unsolicited promotional freebies for personal use. Items should be collected, then offered up in a benefit sale to the entire newsroom or building or donated to a worthy cause. Complimentary books and recordings can be used for review purposes and added to the newsroom library. Small amounts of promotional foodstuffs are OK for general consumption.
Do not keep items of value given to us for doing our jobs. “Thank you” gifts may be common in other professions, but are considered borderline bribes in ours. The IRS standard of $25 retail value would be the outside limit, but many have a stricter standard. If it can be done politely, refuse or return the gift with an explanation. If not, donate the item to charity or the office pool.
Whenever possible, pay for our own meals. Avoid “feeding at the trough” at media or promotional events, even if other journalists are doing it. Use common sense and common courtesy when offered refreshments or food.
Expect that journalists may be engaged in their community outside of working hours, but guard against actual or perceived conflicts. Here are some general guidelines:
1. Employees are encouraged to be involved in volunteer activities, including churches, clubs, sports, professional and most non-profit groups.
2. Volunteers should be clear that they are not representing the newspaper and that the group should not expect any special consideration or treatment. Avoid taking publicity or public-relations positions.
3. Avoid membership and involvement in political and governmental groups and activities. Serving on a board or commission is dubious; volunteering for a campaign or running for office is unacceptable. Signing political petitions, making campaign contributions or displaying campaign material is strongly discouraged for all newsroom employees and forbidden for those involved in political coverage. Note: this does not apply to including a party affiliation on your voter registration and voting.
4. Be aware of how a spouse’s or immediate family member’s involvement may reflect on your credibility.
5. Realize that there are many gray areas. Where the line is drawn depends on the activity in question and the employee’s position. When there is any doubt, talk with a supervisor before getting involved.
Be wary of friendships or romances with sources, particularly public officials or figures. Employees have a right to a life outside the office, but can never totally disassociate themselves from being journalists. Our readers have every right to expect that we make decisions independently of personal relationships. In some cases, reassignment may be necessary to avoid real or perceived conflicts.
Disclose investments, real estate holdings and business interests whenever there may be a potential conflict. Under no circumstances should a reporter, photographer or editor have a direct role in covering a story in which they or their families have a personal financial stake. Reassignment or divestment may be necessary to avoid real or perceived conflicts.
Be extremely careful to avoid outside work that could compromise or call into question the independence of employees or the newspaper. These guidelines apply to all outside work involving writing, photography, editing, graphics and production:
1. Prohibited: paid or volunteer work for political candidates, causes or organizations; paid or volunteer free-lance work for competing publications that circulate in our main coverage area; work on any public relations materials/press releases that will be submitted to the newspaper.
2. Discouraged, but may be approved in advance by the managing editor or executive editor if no apparent conflict: Paid work for businesses, government and non-profit organizations. Journalists should never use their positions at the paper to gain such employment and should never promise or imply special treatment in the paper.
3. Appropriate: Paid work for private parties, such as wedding photography; free-lance work for non-partisan national or regional publications; volunteer work for non-profit groups (as long as it’s not public relations work intended to get something in the newspaper.)
Guard all notes, documents, photographic negatives and photographs collected during work as newspaper property. They will not be given to outsiders without consent of top editors.
Never let advertising or business relationships with the Statesman Journal influence our news decisions. We serve the long-range business interests of the paper and the community by being independent.
Assist law enforcement authorities only when there is a clear and compelling public interest at stake. Never let cooperation get in the way of holding them accountable and telling the truth.
Take care when cooperating with government and other institutions on public journalism projects. Often, these efforts are worthwhile and in the readers’ interest. But they can also compromise our independence.
Never allow pre-publication review of a story by a source. This prohibition would not include reading back quotes or allowing experts to review and comment on technical material.
Guiding Principle Four: Be Accountable
We answer to our readers, our community and each other. We will:
Expect newsroom employees to act ethically. Consider ethics a necessary part of employee orientation, training and evaluation.
Admit mistakes and promptly correct all errors.
Be willing to explain our decisions to our readers. Accept and consider criticism. Abide by the same high standards, or even higher ones, to which we hold other institutions.
The Nine Deadly Sins
There are certain accepted standards that are absolute. Violation of any of these rules may result in discipline up to and including dismissal.
Thou shalt not:
1. Make up sources or quotes. This includes “composite” sources.
2. Deliberately distort the truth.
3. Take bribes. This means accepting cash in any amount, trips or substantial gifts in exchange for doing our jobs. The IRS gift standard ($25 value) is the outside limit on what would be considered a “substantial gift.”
4. Plagiarize from sources outside the newspaper. If you have any doubt, attribute or discuss it with your editor.
5. Alter the content of news photos through technological or other means. Photo-illustrations are acceptable, but should be clearly labeled.
6. Use our standing with the newspaper for personal financial gain or special treatment.
7. Pay sources for news stories.
8. Stage or re-create news events for photographs.
9. Physically or verbally abuse a source, reader or colleague.
Note: The four principles for this ethics policy were taken from the Poynter Institute’s “Guiding Principles for Journalists.” The format and some phrasing was taken from the Society of Professional Journalists’ 1996 Code of Ethics.