February 3, 2008 in City

The Spokesman-Review Newsroom Code of Ethics

The Spokesman-Review
 

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Readers can comment on the proposed code of ethics revision in a number of ways.

Post a comment on the Web on News is a Conversation, Editor Steven A. Smith’s blog, at spokesmanreview.com/ blogs/conversation/

E-mail comments to editorforum @spokesman.com

Send comments to Smith at

The Spokesman-Review, 999 W. Riverside, Spokane, WA 99201

Call Smith at (509) 459-5423.

Newsroom Values Statement

The following values form the framework for the myriad news decisions made daily by Spokesman-Review journalists. Our goal is to live up to these values every day, and we ask readers to hold us accountable. •We reflect the life of our community in all of its wholeness and complexity. All in our community should see themselves, their family, friends and co-workers, their triumphs, tragedies, dreams and aspirations reflected in our pages in an authentic way. •In matters of significant public interest, particularly involving government and other institutions that impact public life, we tell people what we know when we know it, without fear or favor. •We act as a watchdog over government and other institutions that impact citizens’ lives. •We are committed to the free marketplace of ideas. •We believe the public’s business ought to be conducted in public – always. We will advocate open meetings and open records and will hold government accountable for actions that keep essential information from citizens. •We give voice to the voiceless and defend the defenseless, recognizing the unique role the newspaper can play in representing the interests of individuals and groups that don’t always have a place at the public’s table. •We recognize the positive lives led by our community’s young people every day. Young people should be reflected in our paper in ways that recognize they are more than victims or perpetrators of crime. •We empower citizens so that they can exercise their citizenship. We provide the essential information citizens need to vote with intelligence and to interact with government •We will do good, not just good work. We understand that our first responsibility is to the communities we serve. We won’t produce journalism to win professional contests, but to serve citizens.

Accuracy

Our credibility as a newsgathering operation is vitally dependent on the accuracy of our work.

Getting information wrong is not by itself unethical; all of us make mistakes. But it is an ethical issue if we do not take the needed care to avoid errors in the first place.

All newsroom employees – reporters, photographers, editors and support staff – must strive to avoid errors of fact in print and online. For example, proper names, titles, phone numbers, street and Web addresses and other facts (historical information, dates, equations, statistics and geographical directions) must be verified.

We also are responsible for verifying the factual and contextual accuracy of information provided by sources and other publications, including Internet sites such as Wikipedia. Readers do not care who is responsible for a mistake, only that the mistake was made.

How we respond to errors is also an ethical issue. We are committed to correcting or clarifying errors promptly, completely and prominently in Accuracy Watch. Any newsroom employee who is responsible for an error published in print is required to complete an electronic correction form.

Anonymous Sources

The casual use of anonymous sources is not acceptable because it denies readers the ability to assess the credibility and accuracy of our information. Whenever possible, reporters must use sources on the record in print, on camera or on video.

There are limited circumstances when anonymous sources are permitted, including situations in which divulging information leaves a person vulnerable to retribution or harm. Anonymity may also be the only way to secure information that is vital to a story. Readers must be told why we’re granting anonymity.

We will also describe the source briefly, such as the person’s position or qualification for being quoted, without giving away the person’s identity. In certain situations, confidential sources may be asked to sign an agreement pledging to come forward in the event of litigation or other court action.

The use of an anonymous source must be approved by an editor. There may be situations in which a reporter asks to withhold the name of an anonymous source from an editor.

Promises of anonymity are considered agreements. Reporters should take care not to make deals with sources without consulting an editor.

Because local papers are unable to verify anonymous information provided by wire services and syndicates, editors are also urged to use caution when working with national or international stories. There may be circumstances when an editor prohibits publication of a wire story built around anonymity.

Attribution

Our credibility rests on the use of identifiable sources and information.

When using information from wire services in local stories, reporters should give credit in the body of the story or in a tagline at the bottom. Similarly, when information from multiple wire stories is combined, sources should be attributed.

An exception can be made for information considered widely known and in the public domain such as key historical events or the names of public officials.

See Anonymous Sources, Crediting Work by Others, Plagiarism.

Blogs

Any full-time or part-time employee, extra-board staff member or correspondent who writes or produces a blog for spokesmanreview.com or any other digital or virtual platform should uphold the same ethical standards for accuracy, attribution, fairness and so on as required of journalists producing content for the print newspaper and its related print publications. Blogs produced for the Web should be considered an extension of the printed brand – even as they embrace and invite more relaxed and casual discourse.

Reporters who write beat-specific blogs should avoid expressing opinions that compromise credibility and impartiality.

The laws of libel, defamation and privacy apply to staff-written or produced blogs in the same way they apply to the print edition.

Bloggers can link to other sites that may include profane or violent content but readers must be warned of potential offensive material. Links to sites with content that would earn the equivalent of an “X” rating in popular entertainment or that contain racist material or promote hate speech must be first approved by the editor or managing editor.

Regarding the use of photos in blogs, here too the standards prevailing for the print newspaper apply. Any in-house and wire photo that’s been flagged as unsuitable for print may not be used on a blog without an editor’s permission. Photos outside our system (from readers, the Internet, and so on) should be chosen and presented with the same sensitivity and good judgment that we strive for in the print newspaper. If in doubt, check with an editor. The source must be credited.

Newsroom employees who write personal blogs not hosted by the newspaper should avoid actions that threaten our credibility and objectivity. Reporters should not write “personally” about issues they cover professionally. All staff members must avoid partisan political statements or positions, including the endorsement of candidates or ballot measures. In short, all rules relating to political activity and conflicts of interest apply to personal blogs.

Staffers also should avoid personal blog postings that call into question their moral character or personal behavior that might be in violation of the law. Rather than engage in the futile task of listing what is and isn’t appropriate, we expect simply that you don’t do anything that would embarrass or unpleasantly surprise your editor or colleagues.

See Freelance Work, Web

Community Involvement

How we conduct ourselves in the community can affect The Spokesman-Review’s credibility and independence. In general, staff members are encouraged to be active in neighborhood and community affairs, but not in areas they cover or are otherwise involved in for coverage decisions.

See Conflict of Interest, Independence, Fairness and Impartiality

Conflict of Interest

Our readers deserve news reports free of distortions or influence from outside interests and the personal views and conduct of staff members.

It is the responsibility of staff members and correspondents to discuss with an editor potential conflicts of interest involving themselves or family members. Editors should reassign a story when there is no other reasonable way to overcome a conflict. Potential areas of concern include financial investments, outside employment, group activities and associations with businesses, organizations or political activities, and personal relationships.

Staff and correspondents should not gain any personal advantage as a result of information or resources obtained through their role as journalists.

Neither staff members nor correspondents should own stock in any business they cover except for minimal share ownership acquired in order to have access to stockholders’ meetings.

Staff members or correspondents covering a story in which a spouse or other family member is involved should notify an editor immediately so arrangements can be made to reassign the story.

All expectations listed in this section apply to correspondents the same as to staff members.

Contests

We do not write, report or take photographs for the purpose of winning journalism contests. Also, we do not enter journalism competitions sponsored by groups we cover or groups that could potentially influence our coverage.

Corrections

See Accuracy

Correspondents

Correspondents are freelance writers or photographers who are paid on a per-story or per–photograph basis to provide content for the newspaper. Editors should strive to ensure that the work that correspondents do is in compliance with this code of ethics.

In particular, correspondents should understand that they are not to use their position as a newspaper writer for personal gain, nor should they use their stories to promote causes, businesses or other organizations in which they have a stake. They should disclose community, political and business ties so that editors can determine whether a conflict exists that would compromise the newspaper’s credibility. Correspondents who have an ongoing working arrangement with the newspaper should avoid engaging in political activity, particularly making political contributions or working for campaigns.

Crediting Work by Others

Stories must include original content or credit work done by others.

See Plagiarism

Datelines

Datelines are identifiers that tell readers where a story was principally reported. They should be used only when the writer was really “in the field” and not just passing through. Datelines should not be used if the location is marginally relevant; for instance, a story about huckleberry picking would warrant a Bonners Ferry dateline only if the key elements of the story occurred there.

Exception: Some columnists may use hyperbole or fake datelines to make a point.

See Attribution.

Deception

The process of journalism should be as transparent as possible. Journalists must identify themselves as agents of the newspaper and be direct with sources about their intentions. Journalists should not use deception in pursuit of a story except for extraordinary circumstances involving public risk. Exceptions – which must be approved by the editor – might include a public health crisis or a risk to public safety. In those limited circumstances, editors will use a two-part test to determine if deception is warranted. Is the information being sought of such significant public importance that its importance outweighs the use of deceptive practices? Have all other means of obtaining the information been exhausted? Records of internal discussions leading to approval of deceptive tactics must be retained. In all cases where deception produces a published story, readers will be fully informed of the deception and editors’ justification.

Editorial-News Separation

To assure impartiality and fairness, opinion and news-reporting functions of The Spokesman-Review must remain independent of one another. This does not preclude communication for purposes of fact-checking or passing along news tips. However, opinion page writers must not promote particular news stories, and news reporters and editors must not recommend editorial positions.

Fairness and Impartiality

The news report must remain beyond the sway of special interests and our own biases, which can affect the way a story is framed, how sources are selected, how headlines are written and which images are selected. Stories in The Spokesman-Review will be as fair as possible to all parties involved, and as thorough and complete as possible. Deadline pressure is not an excuse for inadequate reporting. People or organizations portrayed in a critical light will be given the opportunity – and the time – to respond. If a response isn’t possible, a story may be held for more reporting.

It is not ethical to report that a source declined to answer a reporter’s questions or return phone calls unless there is clear evidence the source knew efforts were being made to establish contact and the source was not reachable after repeated and serious attempts to make contact. If that standard is not met, the appropriate and ethical language is “the source could not be reached by publication deadline.”

Freelance Work by S-R Employees

A newsroom employee’s main responsibility is to produce work for the newspaper and not for any competing news outlet. Editorial employees are allowed to accept outside assignments, part-time teaching duties and consultant work as long as they don’t interfere with their regular newspaper work. Outside assignments must be discussed with a supervisor or editor to avoid conflict-of-interest issues.

See Correspondents

Gifts and Gratuities

In general, newsroom employees should not accept gifts or services from organizations or sources we cover. Sources should not expect that favorable coverage can be “bought,” and readers should expect that journalists will not use their position to acquire goods and services that are not otherwise available to the general public.

Two questions to consider when weighing whether to accept a gift: Is this something that would be given to someone who wasn’t a journalist? And: Would my colleagues and readers approve if they knew I accepted this? If the answer to either of these questions is “no,” then you should probably refuse the offer. When in doubt, employees should talk with an editor.

If you receive a gift you deem ethically inappropriate to accept, take one of the following actions (in order of preference).

Refuse or return the gift.

Pay the appropriate amount for the gift. If the item/services are used in news gathering, this amount may be submitted on an expense report.

Donate the item to charity or make a contribution to a related charity equal to the value of the gift.

Whenever practical, the giver should be told about the newspaper’s gift policy and how the item was handled.

Food or drinks consumed for review purposes will be paid for by the company. Unsolicited food or drink items submitted for review shall be given to charity when practical.

Event tickets will be paid for by the company in cases where the journalist would hold a ticket otherwise available to the general public. Sporting events and other situations where journalists sit in a designated press area are an exception.

Books, CDs and DVDs, solicited or otherwise, are considered news releases and are the property of the company. These items, once reviewed or passed over for review, will be donated to charity or sold in The Spokesman-Review “freebie sale,” which benefits the annual Christmas Fund.

Trips or travel expenses accrued in the course of news-gathering will be paid for by the company. Journalists should not accept free travel or transportation from a news source.

See Community Involvement, Conflict of Interest, Fairness and Impartiality, Independence

Graphics

We hold graphics to the same standards as any other content. Graphics must use information from authoritative sources, which should be identified. The visual perspective in charts and graphs should give an accurate representation of data. Information should never be skewed or altered to accommodate a visual need.

Independence

It is the responsibility of The Spokesman-Review to be independent and strenuously avoid bias or favoritism. In matters involving activities of the newspaper’s advertisers, corporate owners and their relatives, business interests and executives, the paper’s reporters and editors will exercise the same thorough journalism as they practice in all other cases. Stories about the company, its owners, business interests and executives will not be made available for pre-publication review by anyone outside the newsroom. Limited and appropriate fact-checking is permitted, as it is with all outside sources. When circumstances warrant, the editor or managing editor will contract with independent reporters and/or editors to report on Cowles Co. issues or organizations that The Spokesman-Review sponsors. It is the responsibility of the editor and managing editor to maintain the newsroom’s independence in coverage of Cowles Co. interests.

In all news judgments and editorial statements, decisions will be guided by a commitment to what is best for the community as a whole and the readers we serve.

See Community Involvement, Conflict of Interest, Fairness and Impartiality

Obscenity and Profanity

Our readers expect a professional, family-oriented tone. Obscenity, profanity, slurs and other potentially offensive material should be excluded from our coverage. In some cases, language that could offend some readers may be itself newsworthy, and then news value must be balanced against standards of taste. Use of offensive or crude language must be approved by an editor. Use of words generally viewed as obscene as well as racial, ethnic, religious or gender-directed slurs cannot be used in any context without approval of the editor or managing editor.

Refer to the local stylebook for specific guidelines.

See Stereotypes and Race

Official Scorers

At the risk of becoming a news story or being involved with the outcome of a contest, employees may not serve as official scorers at sports events or judge events that will be reported on.

Outside Appearances

Two possible problems can arise here. One is a conflict of interest or other damage to the paper’s credibility. Being a guest on local radio or TV talks shows is acceptable. However, we wouldn’t want an editorial employee to give a speech in a partisan political setting on behalf of a candidate or engage in any other kind of advocacy role that may compromise the paper’s independence. In other words, don’t speak in forums that would embarrass or unpleasantly surprise your editor or colleagues.

The other regards payment. It is not OK for an employee to “double dip” by earning an honorarium or other compensation for a presentation prepared or delivered on company time. Payment for speeches, teaching or other appearances done on your own time presents no problem, with one exception: Speaking fees from entities we cover must be approved by the editor.

See Conflict of Interest, Fairness and Impartiality, Independence

Photography

As photojournalists, we understand the public’s trust in our images is paramount, and that photographic credibility takes time to build and a moment to lose. We strive to be accurate, fair and comprehensive in our representation of our subjects. We resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities, and whenever possible we seek better documentary alternatives. Publication of controversial pictures, such as those depicting grief or tragedy, should be considered with the feelings of the community and the photo subjects in mind.

Photographers will not alter a scene when shooting a news photograph. Manipulation that changes the truthfulness of an image, such as staging or digitally adding or removing content, is not allowed unless it involves a graphic device or photo illustration approved by the photo editor and clearly labeled as such. Post-processing of digital images should be handled in a way that preserves the photographer’s creative interpretation but does not deceive the viewer through the use of digital enhancing beyond normal color correction, toning and cropping of an image.

See Accuracy

Plagiarism

The unattributed use of another’s creative work product is prohibited. Except where the intent is clearly satirical, this includes mimicking another writer’s general approach to a story or material use of another’s themes, writing and presentation. The citation of widely known and reported events that are in the public domain is not prohibited. This policy applies to all content including guest columns and letters to the editor.

See Accuracy, Attribution

Political Involvement

Staff members are prohibited from membership or activity in political organizations — partisan or nonpartisan — and from engagement in political events except when acting as a designated representative of a bona fide journalistic organization and speaking on behalf of recognized journalistic interests such as preserving the First Amendment. If spouses or family members engage in such political activities, the staff member should notify his or her supervisor. The workplace should be free of political or other displays that could compromise The Spokesman-Review’s impartiality in the eyes of visitors.

Staff members may not engage in political advocacy – as members of a campaign, a political party or any other organization specifically concerned with political change. This includes a prohibition of donations to political campaigns. Staff members cannot run for elected office or accept political appointments. This code does not preclude activity in churches, parent-teacher groups or similar community activities, but staff members should still follow it if such involvement overlaps publicly with newsworthy issues such as abortion, gay rights or even zoning.

Staff members should avoid public expression or demonstrations of their political views including bumper stickers, lawn signs and banners. Political signs are prohibited in the newsroom except as historical artifacts. Staff members should avoid overt demonstrations of political bias – such as cheering the results of an election – in any situation where they could be observed by members of the general public who would recognize them as professional journalists employed by The Spokesman-Review.

See Community Involvement, Conflict of Interest, Fairness and Impartiality, Independence

Privacy – Of Sources and Those We Write About

The Spokesman-Review’s first priority is to gather and report the news. Public figures and others who thrust themselves into the public sphere should have no expectation of privacy from that process. When reporting on people who find themselves in newsworthy situations, we’ll cover their situations with compassion and respect for their general privacy. Information about the newsworthy event must be covered, but information about private lives should be balanced against legitimate public interest.

It is The Spokesman-Review’s policy not to identify victims of sexual assault, either directly or by revealing family connections or other ties that could reasonably allow identification because of the stigma attached to the crimes. This policy can be waived with the consent of the victim.

We also withhold the names of juveniles who are accused of or who commit crimes. Exceptions may be made if the juvenile is treated as an adult by the criminal justice system, or is accused of a crime involving loss of life, sexual assault, arson or other felony. These exceptions can be made if the importance of identification outweighs the privacy interests of the juvenile. In those circumstances, the decision to identify the juvenile must be made by the editor or managing editor.

Quotations

Quotes must be accurate and not taken out of context. Quotes should not be altered to correct grammatical errors or word usage, although paraphrasing is a good alternative for the sake of clarity. Paraphrasing should accurately reflect the intended meaning of the quote.

See Accuracy, Attribution

Sources

Developing news sources and maintaining professional relationships are critical to our news-gathering ability. We should resist the temptation to become too close to sources and thereby impede our ability to be independent, fair and impartial. Promising special consideration in news stories or editorials in exchange for information is prohibited. Any agreements to withhold information we’ve obtained from sources should be discussed with an editor. At times, friends and relatives will alert us to story possibilities and may even have important insights. But reporters must make every effort to use that information for its tip value and seek confirmation and amplification from others with whom there is no such personal relationship.

See Fairness and Impartiality, Independence

Stereotypes and Race

The Spokesman-Review avoids and guards against stereotypes in all we publish.

Journalists should avoid using terms and phrases that demean or reflect assumptions about people’s religion, race, sexual orientation, gender, ethnic background, status or physical condition. References to a person’s racial or physical characteristics may be used when appropriate in providing readers an accurate and balanced news account.

See Obscenity and Profanity

Transparency

The Spokesman-Review holds itself to the same standards of openness it applies to public institutions and agencies. Our decisions about news coverage – both in print and online – are open to scrutiny. Citizens and readers are encouraged to ask questions, observe and participate in news meetings and share their opinions through blogs, letters to the editor and any other interactive processes that might be developed. Reader interaction must be a component of all newsroom initiatives. Transparency enhances our credibility by opening up the news-gathering process and allowing readers to test their assumptions about our biases.

See Fairness and Impartiality, Independence

Truth

It’s worth stating the obvious: Journalists seek truth. Our credibility depends on our ability to be accurate, balanced and independent with our news report.

See Accuracy

The Web

The Internet and publishing platforms yet to be developed are to be viewed as extensions of the newspaper and its brand. While digital platforms known and yet to be developed may differ dramatically in their reach and functionality, the same rules and guidelines governing staff-generated content apply. We bring the same standards of accuracy, balance and independence to our digital journalism as we do to our print journalism. We apply the same ethical standards to all of our publishing platforms.

Web journalism that is interactive – that allows third parties to post information or commentary to spokesmanreview.com – differs from the newspaper in terms of the laws of defamation and privacy. As of this code’s last revision, Congress allows providers of interactive Web sites immunity from publishing or distributing obscene or defamatory material written by others in order to encourage free speech. This principle, however, does not override our ethics and values as a news-gathering operation. Questions about third-party information on the site or being offered to the site should be raised with a supervisor or editor. The Spokesman-Review has the discretion to refuse or pull material based on issues of obscenity, defamatory content or personal attacks.


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