Module 3: Ethics and Media Management

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Ethical Issues

Integrity in Journalism

Journalists critique the activities of other people and institutions, and what they
publish can have a profound impact on the people, businesses and institutions
they cover, as well as society at large.

Journalists must live up to the highest
standards of integrity, such as: truth, fairness, sincerity, and avoiding the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Rigorous honesty is required in research, analysis, and writing, as well as in discussion with colleagues and clients. Lack of honesty in undermines the very foundation of the journalistic process and can have grave consequences.


• Without integrity your journalism is untrustworthy and suspect. Integrity gives a journalist the authority to investigate issues, shine a light in dark places and to dig where others don't. It is essential for informing the public debate with trustworthy, rigorous journalism. In editorial terms it means the following:
not to sell your services for financial reward
not to take money from a person, group or organization
not to promote a story based on any personal, group, or partisan interests
not to endorse or appear to endorse any organization or services
not to promote our own media organization


Factual accuracy entails checking, and double-checking facts, and fairness
involves working diligently to get myriad sides of a story by speaking to multiple
sources with different and often varying points of view.

A source is roughly defined as a person who contributes information to a piece of reportage.

Journalists should seek to be fair and truthful in reporting what their sources tell them.

Recording Interviews

There are obvious benefits to recording interviews, namely an assurance of accuracy and the creation of a verifiable record. Although the laws of certain American states allow professional journalists to tape conversations without getting the permission of the interviewee beforehand, some states don't.

Journalists should first ask permission before taping any conversation to head off any potential legal entanglements. Begin the recording by stating the date, time and asking the person to spell his or her name, which then offers proof the subject agreed to the taping.

In very rare instances, secret taping may be warranted.

On-Street Interviews

When interviewing people on the street, such as, tourists, passersby, voters exiting a polling precinct, be sure to get proper contact information (telephone number is best; e-mail less so) in the event an editor needs to confirm quotes or facts, check a source’s identity, or simply wants the journalist to ask follow up questions.

Often the purpose of on-the-street interviews is to try to capture the diversity of opinion in a particular population, not just to get a few lively quotes to brighten a story. In this case, a reporter should make an effort to interview enough people so that he can feel reasonably confident the story holds a fair cross-section of opinion.


Journalists should avoid using unidentified sources whenever possible.

There are moments, however, when the only way to get a story is to offer
anonymity to a source; such offers should be a last resort after repeated attempts to go on the record have failed and the journalist has received permission from his editor.

Some notable examples: a source admits committing a crime, and publishing his name could land him in prison; a source begs anonymity because public exposure could embarrass the source or jeopardize the source's job; an illegal immigrant is afraid to speak out for fear of being deported.

On the Record/Off the Record

These are prearranged agreements between a reporter and a source, which
govern how specific information can be used. These deals must be agreed to
beforehand, never after. A source can't say something then claim it was "off the
record." That's too late.

Off the record restricts the reporter from using the information the source is about to deliver. The information is offered to explain or further a reporter's understanding of a particular issue or event.

When dealing with individuals who are not experienced in talking with reporters, journalists should make sure ground rules and potential consequences are clear, and then perhaps offer leeway.

Good journalists don't simply extract information, or claims, from written or broadcast material; they check that material against other or similar material for accuracy. Just because something is published doesn't mean it's accurate or fair.

Ethical Issues

Research Materials & Copyright

Sources may also be defined as research material, including newspapers, magazines, books, research reports, studies, polls, radio, television, newsreels, documentaries, movies, audio podcasts or video from the Web.

All such sources, particularly secondary sources, should be carefully vetted.

Use of Material

The journalist must clearly indicate where information comes from. Failure to
disclose your reliance on someone else's work is unethical, and can leave
readers or viewers in the dark about the legitimacy of the information.

This does not hold true if something is a well-known fact that is beyond reasonable dispute.

Also as a writer you can legally use a limited amount of copyrighted material for purposes of commentary and criticism, and parody, without first seeking permission.

Privacy vs. Right to Know

The key is whether a person's private life—his personal habits, sexual preference, medical condition, odd interests—is newsworthy and should therefore be published. These can be vexing decisions to make.

A question journalists often confront is how much of a person's private life should be revealed in an article.

Just because a reporter can pull up a source's mortgages, stock holdings, or perform a Google Earth flyover of his home doesn't mean that's ethical practice.

Undercover Work

Before engaging in any undercover work for an assignment, consult your
editor. Carefully consider whether your reporting could violate criminal or civil law. Weigh the potential harm involved. Could relying on subterfuge get you arrested? Could it lead to violence?

Does it invade someone's privacy, especially in a non-public area like a home or
an office? Are there laws in your area against recording without a person's
permission, or specifically against using hidden cameras? Might it undermine the validity of your story?

These are serious questions to consider.


The vast majority of the time journalists should make clear to the people they are interviewing that they are journalists.

In highly unusual circumstances there may be good reasons for not identifying oneself as a journalist. For example, if observing police officers interactions with protestors at a rally, or reviewing a restaurant or videotaping counterfeit merchandise in a market, identifying yourself as a reporter may not be appropriate since it could affect the type of treatment you receive.

Likewise, if conducting an undercover assignment, especially if outing oneself as a reporter could result in potential harm. But these are rare examples.


The Internet adds an ever-increasing number of ways to expose people—with
potentially embarrassing facts reappearing on searches for years.

Privacy should never be taken lightly and journalists should not inquire into sources' personal lives unless doing so is relevant to the story they are researching.

The fact that a local politician has patronized a gay bar might be his private business; the fact that a local politician known for anti-gay stances had patronized that bar might be the public's business.

What to Write

If you are writing about a gay bar destroyed in a fire, do you release the names of deceased patrons?

What if you learn a homemaker in the community had been a prostitute many years earlier. Do you run it?

If a woman accuses a man of rape do you publish his name if charges haven't been filed, and do you investigate the sexual history of the woman making the allegations?

If a local judge rents a porn video, is that news?

Ethical Issues

Conflicts of Interest

In an era of great and growing dissatisfaction with the media, it is imperative that journalists avoid conflicts of interest.

These are defined as situations in which there are competing professional, personal and/or financial obligations or interests that compete with the journalist's obligation to his outlet and audience.

The Journalist should be transparent and stipulate the relationship, whatever form that may take.


Journalists generally should not accept any gifts from sources or from the
subjects of their stories. Sometimes sources will send tokens of their appreciation after the fact, which is to say after publication. Every media outlet has its own policy on accepting such gifts.

If abroad in cultures where refusing hospitality could be interpreted as rudeness, it may be permissible to accept food, private lodging and/or small tokens of affection or gratitude.

Similarly, in some cultures (Japan, for example) it is appropriate for a reporter to present a small gift to a source before the interview starts, especially if the interview is being conducted in the source's home.


What you choose to blog about and what you write for publication could potentially raise ethical concerns.

For example, if you blog about a hard news story you published on stem cell
research and bash governmental policy, readers could conceivably question your objectivity. Be aware that whatever you write may remain in cyberspace in
perpetuity, revealed with a simple Web search. If you post malicious, immature or prurient material, or engage in online "flame wars," you could inadvertently
undermine your credibility and ethical standing. A rule of thumb: since everything you write online is, in effect, published, you should not write anything that violates the rules of honest and decent journalism.

Legal Issues

Breaking the Law

Be especially careful when publishing statements that are injurious to
someone's reputation; it could lead to a libel suit.

A plaintiff cannot win a libel suit if the defamatory statement you published was true, but journalists sometimes do
make mistakes.

After publication of a story, treat an angry person politely and put him in contact with your editor; never ignore him or treat him rudely.

(FOIA) Freedom of Information and Sunshine laws

Sunshine Laws seek to shine light on the inner workings of state and federal government officials and departments. As a result most meetings of regulatory bodies must be public and their decisions and records disclosed.

These laws are not limited to the United States. Some 70 nations have implemented sunshine laws of varying strengths.
The United States Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), enacted in 1966, requires that government agencies disclose records not specifically and reasonably exempt to any individuals—including journalists—upon written request, with the right of access enforceable in court.

Breaking the law in pursuit of a story

Journalists are subject to the same laws as any other citizens, and the newsworthiness of a story is no defense against a criminal charge.

For example, journalists have been prosecuted for such offenses as criminal trespass; disorderly conduct for refusing to follow the instructions of a police officer; theft of trade secrets; theft by hacking into computer, voice- and e-mail systems; and possession of child pornography.

Even when reporters don't violate a criminal statute, they may still cause a
personal injury that can lead to a civil lawsuit for money damages. Examples
include defamation; invasion of privacy; emotional distress and fraud.


Journalists earn their living with words, and plagiarism—using someone else's words as if they were your own—is, simply stated, stealing. It can take many forms.

At its worst, plagiarism can be copying and pasting an article off the Internet and slapping your own byline at the top. Or subtler: Lifting a quote from a wire service story or taking credit for another person's idea.

It can be tempting to lift highly technical passages, but don't do it. Instead, find a way to describe things in your own words.

Fictional Devices

Names, dates and places should never be altered in any story, even to protect a source's identity.

If publishing those facts could lead to retribution against a source, or if compassion dictates omitting these facts from a story, they should simply be cut (with an explanation to the reader).

Composites, which are characteristics and histories of multiple characters blended into one, should never be used.

Doctoring Photos or Video

It is not permissible to doctor or manipulate photos for the purpose of misleading, although is all right to crop pictures or enhance clarity if blurry.

With video it is OK to edit footage but not all right to alter subjects' appearance or likewise distort reality. Increasingly photo manipulation is being used as an explanatory technique: Putting George Bush's head onto a wrestler's body for satiric purposes, for example.

This is acceptable only if there will be no confusion between the photo manipulation—satiric or otherwise—and reality.


Making up sources or information in an assignment is a serious ethical violation. In the real world, it could lead to immediate dismissal and the end of your career.

In the late 1990s Stephen Glass created in part or whole some two dozen stories he published in The New Republic, Harpers and Rolling Stone, which led to one of the biggest journalism scandals in American history.

Jayson Blair of The New York Times plagiarized and fabricated sources and
material, which became a huge embarrassment to the Times, which is still
recovering. Both journalists are now out of the profession.


To avoid charges of plagiarism, a writer must paraphrase another's words and state the source(s); credit another person's ideas and theories; and cite any facts that are not commonly known.

Be sure to label your notes carefully when consulting material in a library or online. It is possible to inadvertently plagiarize a work this way; if you do, you suffer the consequences nevertheless.

The bottom-line rule of attribution is: When in doubt, cite the source of your
information. You can't go wrong then.

Opinion and fact


Ensure that opinion is clearly distinguished from fact. We might also need to ensure that some views are reflected in our output, even if we find some repulsive.

We have a duty to inform the public debate regardless of our own personal points of view and preferences.

When our own media organization becomes the story, perhaps bad financial news, a sacking, a drugs scandal, poor ratings, etc, we need to ensure that we are prepared to report on news affecting us as we would on news affecting others.

Balance in Journalism

Sometimes journalists talk about offering balanced reporting. That is not realistic. Life is not balanced and nor is the journalism that reports on life.
It might be that a story is so one-sided that to try to offer so-called balance makes a mockery of the report. In such cases, we should aim to offer other perspectives later in the programme or in a later bulletin.
Personal views offering one side of a story can often add fresh public understanding of an issue and encourage debate. These can include the views of victims and those who feel that they, or others, have been wronged. Such personal views can be highly partial. In such cases, it is important we make it clear to the audience that the views being expressed offer one side only.

Impartiality in Journalism

Being impartial means not being prejudiced towards or against any particular side.

All journalists have their own views, yet, to deliver comprehensive coverage of news stories, they must rise above their own personal perspectives. By reflecting the diversity of opinion, fairly and accurately, we offer a true picture of the news.

News is about delivering facts that have been tested, sourced, attributed and proven. Impartiality is essential for robust news coverage.

Being Impartial

It's not about being soft and bland. It's about stripping out the personal, and allowing the audience the dignity of drawing their own conclusions free from any thought pollution injected by the journalist.

• It means we must strive to:
Reflect a wide range of opinions
Explore conflicting views
Ensure that no relevant perspective is ignored
Avoid any personal preferences over subject matter or choice of interviewees
Be honest and open about any personal interests/history