Ethics board helps us tackle tough topics
Feb. 4, 2012 at 4:03 p.m.
Updated Feb. 4, 2012 at 8:05 p.m.
We're nearing the fifth anniversary of the Victoria Advocate's ethics board. When we met first in August 2007, we crafted this mission statement:
• To provide guidance to the newspaper on the ethical decisions we face every day. Secondarily, we agreed we want to communicate our ethics to our readers. This philosophy of transparency will build our credibility in an era when so many younger readers are turned off by all media.
I've shared a lot of our discussions via blog posts, but I realized recently that it would be helpful to try to recap the varied ground our group has covered. Here's an abbreviated list from my files:
• The implications of citizen journalism as we rolled out what was then a new website design focused on news from us and from you. During this discussion, we agreed on the principles of what become our online user policy and settled on the approach of encouraging our online community to police itself. We have revisited this issue multiple times since 2007. It perhaps is our most-discussed topic, which even prompted a training session by a national expert.
• The use of anonymous sources. We loosened our restrictions against any use of anonymous sources, which had prevented us from publishing some Associated Press stories about significant news from Washington, D.C., and other places. However, we reiterated our reluctance to use anonymous sources in local stories. Any use must be approved in advance by a senior editor. They will be permitted in news stories only if the information is considered essential to an important story and cannot be obtained in any other way.
• How reporters should respond to online comments. We agreed reporters should engage with our online community but be careful to avoid coming off as defensive. We agreed this could at times be a difficult line to walk. We want to explain our thinking and our coverage, which is why we opened our Internet Cafe this month and started webcasting our news meetings in 2008.
• How best to keep separate our news coverage and our Advocate editorial board opinions. This came up quite a bit as we discussed the long-running "Law and Disorder" coverage. We agreed we do this best by being transparent about both, such as by webcasting our news meetings and our editorial board meetings. We also stopped endorsing political candidates, opting instead to webcast our interviews with them and to print their answers on our Viewpoints pages.
• When to name people arrested but not yet charged. We name those arrested in newsworthy events that we plan to follow through the court system, but we don't name those arrested in our daily police blotter unless they have been arrested on warrants, meaning the cases already have gone before the district attorney.
• How to handle requests for information about anonymous commenters. We agreed we would not release identifying information to the general public, but we wouldn't fight a subpoena regarding potentially criminal or libelous statements made on our website. We want to respect our users' privacy, but we also don't want to protect those who engage in criminal activity or post libelous statements.
• How to handle gifts and other possible conflicts of interest. We reviewed the Kansas City Star's gift policy and agreed on a threshold of $50 or greater for returning a gift or similar favor. We want to, of course, avoid the perception that our news coverage can be bought.
• How to handle questionable advertising. We don't accept advertising from companies we know to be disreputable, but we also encourage buyers to beware. We can't fully vet every offer out there. Any questionable advertising are flagged for review by our co-publishers. It also is our policy to clearly distinguish between advertising and news.
• How to handle graphic news photographs. This is an occasional topic as news coverage warrants discussion. We try to find the balance between showing reality and disturbing the community. We have talked about photos in a variety of other instances, too, referring to the National Press Photographers Association's code of ethics as a guide.
• The community involvement of the family owners and newspaper staff. We encourage Advocate employees to be involved in the community but recognize that can lead to perceptions of bias. We encourage transparency about our community involvement and bring any specific concerns before the ethics board.
• Whether to publish the salaries of public employees. We weighed concern about privacy vs. the public's right to know how their tax dollars are being spent. We agreed to publish the salaries but with only positions rather than names listed. To see salaries of Crossroads public employees, go to Data Central on our website.
• Whether to accept front-page advertising and other advertising that might intrude on space traditionally reserved for news. We decided to accept front-page advertising under specific guidelines.
• How journalists handle themselves on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. While we encourage journalists to be active on social networks, we remind them that they always are representatives of the Advocate first and must conduct themselves accordingly. The staff also received training on this and related topics through a program by the Committee of Concerned Journalists.
• Whether to accept consumer complaints as letters to the editor. We don't accept accusations against private companies; instead, we turn those over to our Watchdog columnist to investigate all sides of the issue.
• How to handle coverage of newspaper employees' family members, particularly children who excel in sports or academics. We shouldn't ignore their accomplishments, but we must be mindful of the perception that we might give preferential treatment to our relatives or friends. We want to be just as fair to those we don't know.
• How online comments affect the newspaper's credibility. We participated in an Associated Press Media Editors Credibility Project on the subject; the in-depth findings are still available on a special web page, VictoriaAdvocate.com/survey.
• Whether the Google age changes how we handle online archives. A man named in a crime story in the 1980s wanted the Advocate to remove the article from our Google-digitized pages. He said the court had expunged the accusation from his record, but Google's recent addition of the original Associated Press story in its search results damaged his reputation. The board referred to an APME report on the subject and ruled we had no satisfactory way of granting his request.
• Advocate family owners' involvement in political campaigns. We agreed the owners have a right and perhaps even obligation to be involved in community leadership, but this also can lead to some having a perception of bias by the newspaper. The best answer is to be transparent about and mindful of these potential conflicts of interest. The owners also respect the separation the newsroom tries to maintain from any campaigning they might do as individuals.
• A procedure for family members to suggest story ideas to the newsroom. This was done to respect the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics principle of acting independently.
• News coverage of events the newspaper sponsors. We want to be as fair with coverage of Advocate events as we are with those organized by others. In particular, we discussed the best way to report on "Barefoot Sunday," a charitable event organized by two reporters.
• Best practices for publishing corrections. We promptly correct any errors brought to our attention and consistently place news corrections on A2 and sports corrections on C3. We also added an online feature for readers to immediately flag errors.
• How to handle unverified information submitted by readers. We conducted a series of community sessions, called "Be Your Own Advocate," about community contributions. Through these discussions and an online survey, we gauged readers' expectations for how we handle this material.
• Most recently, we discussed civil court coverage, which was a follow-up to an earlier discussion. This week, we plan to discuss best practices for suicide coverage, a topic we also have discussed before.
Perhaps the most rewarding part of these wide-ranging discussions is that we have involved many people in the conversation about ethics. The days when one editor might rule with an iron fist from his corner office are, thankfully, long gone. The best decisions develop from thoughtful discussions.
After we talked about the Advocate's gift policy back in early 2008, we received eight boxes of Girl Scout cookies with the annual press release about the sales kickoff. A reporter raised the question of whether eating these cookies violated our policy. Although the board decided accepting the cookies was OK because they were under our $50 threshold, a couple of staffers suggested we auction off the cookies to the staff and donate the proceeds to charity. We did just that and raised $73.51 for Adopt-A-Pet in the name of deceased staffer Kevin Jordan.
That conversation prompted me to send a note to the staff that seems worth repeating today: "Ethics policies are intended to help you work as a professional journalist, not to trip you up. If you have questions about any of this, please consult with a supervisor, as a few of you already have this week."
Many have raised questions - and we're the better for having shared in the search for answers.
Chris Cobler is the editor of the Victoria Advocate. He may be reached at email@example.com or at 361-574-1271.