Ethics

On the set of Indiana Newsdesk, the weekly television newsmagazine the WTIU/WFIU news team produces. (Photo from WTIU)

On the set of Indiana Newsdesk, the weekly television newsmagazine the WTIU/WFIU news team produces. (Photo from WTIU)

As a working journalist, my primary obligation is to the truth insofar as I can report it. As part of fulfilling that obligation, I live my life in a way I can defend in the course of my job.

I’m a citizen. I vote. But I reject all political or partisan affiliations. I do not endorse candidates, sign petitions, donate to campaigns or otherwise publicly advocate for political causes.

I’m a human being. I have opinions. But I don’t share opinions about subjects, topics, or issues I cover. I owe as much to members of the public, who need to know I clearly delineate between fact and opinion in my reporting. I owe as much to my editors and colleagues, whose work would be undermined by my partiality. I believe it’s important to strive for impartiality as much as possible. As Kovach & Rosenstiel write:

When the concept of objectivity originally evolved, it did not imply that journalists are free of bias. It called, rather, for a consistent method of testing information — a transparent approach to evidence — precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work. The method is objective, not the journalist. Seeking out multiple witnesses, disclosing as much as possible about sources, or asking various sides for comment, all signal such standards. This discipline of verification is what separates journalism from other modes of communication, such as propaganda, fiction or entertainment.

The purpose of my work is to offer the best possible portrait of the truth by separating fact from fiction on behalf of the audience. They, not I, are tasked with drawing ultimate conclusions from that portrait.

I’m not a traffic cop. Quality reporting is not simply culling and relaying facts and opinions. In fact, quality journalism often involves highlighting the implications of policies and events through reporting. Highlighting implication should not be confused with proffering opinion. That said, the burden falls on me to seek and include comment from an appropriately-wide array of voices in my reporting.

I’m connected to social networks that bridge my public and private lives. This is by conscious choice. I primarily view Twitter as a public space. I primarily view Facebook as a personal space. But indeed, “Friends” are sources and sources are friends. For this reason, I must maintain my social media accounts in a way I can justify to anyone for any reason.

Many journalists offer the disclaimer “RT’s ≠ endorsements” on their Twitter bios. I think it’s worth fleshing out what we mean by that:

  • I Share, Like, Retweet, Favorite and mention links I find interesting or relevant to the reporting I’m doing. I don’t agree with all of them. Don’t read into it. Instead, read — and read into — what I write on this blog.
  • I “Like” and participate in forums (especially on Facebook) with definite ideological predispositions. By Liking or Subscribing to them, I do not endorse the viewpoints of the members. I participate in these forums because that’s where my sources are already sharing information. I comment and post in those forums in a way I can defend on ethical and professional grounds, as I would in any public space.

I think of this as part of my “transparent approach”; as a way to offer explanation or justification about how I do my job and view my profession. I opine freely in this space about media issues and journalistic processes and ethics. You might even get a sense of how I approach issues in the course of my job. I welcome that. So long as my sharing doesn’t compromise my journalistic integrity on issues I cover most often, I think you deserve to know about how I see the world.

I’m committed to give every source a fair shake — but my first obligation is to the public. I hold frequent off-the-record conversations with sources. For both my source’s sake and mine, I’m usually happy to do so.

There’s a difference between “going off the record,” speaking “on background,” talking “on the record” and speaking on tape. If you want to read about how I see those distinctions, I spell them out in painstaking detail here.

Suffice it to say: If you want to go off the record with me, just ask — it’s a mutual agreement, not a source’s dictate — and most often I’ll say yes. It’s often helpful for me in tracking down more appropriate sources, in understanding why information is sensitive, in planning future coverage or in determining whether to grant anonymity to sources.

That said, people reading, watching or listening to the stories I produce don’t benefit from off-the-record conversations. I’ll often follow-up by asking you how we can eventually move the information onto the record, whether it’s through an on-the-record interview with you or someone else.

These are guidelines to govern my behavior, not my sources’ behavior. I should be as clear as possible with sources about these guidelines.

I’m bound by the ethics policies of my employer, KPLU Public Radio, and by the guidelines spelled out in the NPR Ethics Handbook.

The principles by which we gather the news and write the news haven’t changed in a 1,000 years. No matter if your tablet is made of stone or glass, is it the words that matter. Are they right? Are they fair? Are they honest? Are they true? —Scott Pelley, CBS News

Posted April 21, 2012. I last updated this page on April 2, 2014.

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