“The worst time to write an ethics statement is when you’re under the gun,” said Tom Kearney, managing editor of The Stowe (Vt.) Reporter. “It just won’t work.”
At the New England Newspaper and Press Association winter convention at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel, Kearney and three other journalists convened for a panel on the importance of ethics in the newsroom. About 30 people attended the workshop – “Handling Sticky Ethics Issues: There’s no book for this!” – and more than 20 questions were asked by members of the audience.
The panel also included Bill Mitchell, an affiliate faculty member for entrepreneurial and international teaching at The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Paula Bouknight, assistant managing editor for hiring and development at The Boston Globe. It was moderated by Link McKie, who teaches journalism at Northeastern University.
The workshop began with Bouknight detailing the Globe’s 138-point ethics code, including the paper’s policy on anonymous sources.
Bouknight said that although the Globe would rather quote people on the record, anonymous sources remain a part of the news business. She said the Globe’s policy is that the identity of an anonymous source must be known by the reporter and at least one editor to help ensure that the source is trustworthy.
When mulling whether to grant a source anonymity, a newspaper needs to consider a number of questions, she said: Is the anonymous source essential to the story? Is it possible to get the same information elsewhere?
“Anonymous sourcing can be a slippery fish,” Bouknight said.
Bouknight also discussed the ethics behind how the Globe handles online comments. The paper strives to “foster some thoughtful comments,” she said. Comments get blocked, however, if they are vulgar or spam, contain hate speech or threats, or violate copyright law. On some stories, such as personal tragedies, the Globe doesn’t allow readers to make comments.
Kearney said the reasoning behind a newspaper’s ethics policy can be just as important as the policy itself.
“Many years down the line from now, (your predecessors) will read your ethics policy and might not understand the reasoning – write down why,” he said.
Kearney shared an unusual policy at the Stowe Reporter, one which protects the identities of victims of domestic violence, similar to the policy at many newspapers to protect the identities of sex crime victims.
Kearney recommended that journalists write a personal ethics code and keep it somewhere they can review it.
“Read it, add to it. Ethics are circumstantial,” he said.
Mitchell went one step further, advising that reporters publish their personal ethical codes. He pointed to his own ethics code, which revealed his political views, religious beliefs and other personal biases. He said it’s useful for readers to be aware of such leanings when reading a reporter’s stories.
“It’s an interesting concept, but how far do I go?” one member of the audience asked. “If I say I am Jewish, my coverage of the Palestinian conflict may be seen as biased. Do I go so far as to say that my father was a very pro-Palestinian Jew? How much do I disclose?”
Both Mitchell and Kearney weighed in, but with different responses.
Mitchell acknowledged that writing a personal ethics statement is not a perfect science: “Publish what you are comfortable with admitting to the world, but don’t feel obligated to disclose every little detail.”
On the other hand, Kearney said he is not in favor of publishing a personal ethics statement, and that he favored journalists writing one and keeping it to themselves.
The ethics panel discussion prompted more than 20 questions from the audience of about 30 people.
Anna Sorokina is an undergraduate student in the Northeastern University School of Journalism.
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