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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Ethics Policy

While the media landscape is changing, our reputation for finding and telling the truth remains the ground on which we stand.  That reputation will always be our greatest asset. The purpose of this code is to help protect that asset, which stands on the foundations of independence and honesty.

These guidelines apply to all members of the Journal Sentinel staff. We all share responsibility to ensure that these guidelines are upheld. Employees at all levels are encouraged to speak up about questionable behavior, especially when the reputation of the Journal Sentinel is at stake, without fear of retribution.

This code incorporates past practices of the Journal Sentinel and its predecessor papers and is designed to help all employees understand and meet longstanding expectations. Elements are drawn from previously published Journal Sentinel Inc. and Journal Communications Inc. ethics codes as well as from written policies of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Kansas City Star, Dallas Morning News, Society of Professional Journalists and American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Section I - Independence

Conflicts of interest. Our foremost professional obligation is to the Journal Sentinel.  We should not engage in outside activities that pose a conflict of interest, or a reasonable appearance of such a conflict, so as to interfere with the proper and impartial performance of our duties as employees or compromise the credibility or reputation of the Journal Sentinel.

Use of Journal Sentinel connections.  We should not use our positions at the Journal Sentinel to seek any benefit or advantage in personal life or personal business.  Examples include writing a letter of complaint to a merchant on Journal Sentinel stationery, referring to Journal Sentinel employment while trying to buy a personal item at reduced price, or using professional contacts to arrange personal benefit awarded on the basis of political connections or personal influence.

Relationships.  We should not write about, photograph or make news judgments about any individual related by blood or marriage or with whom we have a close personal or financial relationship.  An exception is allowed for columns or other first-person writing of a personal nature. Staff members who are placed in a circumstance that has the potential for this kind of conflict should tell their senior editor.

Editors should not hire, use as freelancers or otherwise pay their relatives or people with whom they have a close relationship without the approval of the editor or managing editor.

When in doubt about a relationship, we should ask ourselves: Could we or the newspaper publicly disclose the situation without the fear of embarrassment or legitimate criticism?

Admissions, meals and entertainment.  We pay our own way.  If an event is newsworthy, we can afford it.  When purchasing a reserved seat is impossible or impractical, exceptions should be brought to the attention of a supervisor in advance.

Reporters and photojournalists assigned to cover spectator, sporting or political events may use such facilities as review seats, press boxes, pressrooms, and photo facilities in furtherance of their assignment.  Where possible, the Journal Sentinel will pay for such accommodations and the services that might accompany them, such as food.

Other staff members may use such facilities when the access is necessary to provide information or develop skills.  A sportswriter may need to watch an event, for example, to gain material or insight for future use.  Supervisors should ensure this access is not abused.

The Journal Sentinel will pay for meals and admissions or cover charges incurred in the course of professional duties. An exception to this policy is a professional fellowship in which the participant’s expenses are covered.  In the rare situations where it is socially awkward or even impossible for staff members to pay, they should exercise good judgment in deciding how far to press an insistence on paying. For example, a staff member who receives a meal at a private club might return the favor by scheduling a second meeting and picking up the tab.

Gifts and materials for review.  We should not accept business-connected gifts, free rooms, merchandise, special reduced rates or any other low-pay or no-pay arrangements not available to the general public. Use good judgment in deciding what to do with a gift. Gifts that are not worth returning should be sent immediately to a charity or similar destination. For example, if flowers are delivered to the Waukesha bureau, an editorial assistant is directed to take them to a nursing home. Cream puffs from the State Fair have been given to the Grand Avenue Club.

Gifts of significant value should be returned to the donor with the written explanation that accepting gifts is a violation of Journal Sentinel policy. Materials such as books that are deemed pertinent and useful to the job may be kept for use as a work resource only.

Travel. We should not accept free trips except in the most rare circumstances, and then only with the approval from the editor or managing editor.  The Journal Sentinel will pay for transportation necessary for a staff member’s professional duties in all possible cases, including transportation provided by government or military agencies. Likewise, any reduced fare offered to a Journal Sentinel staff member should be reasonably available to the public and not unique to journalists.

Use common sense and discretion in emergencies.  For example, if the only transit available to a disaster or military action is by military helicopter, a staff member trying to cover a story should use that transportation and inform a supervisor as soon as possible.

Computer materials.  Staff members should not make unauthorized copies of material for computers, including software and related documentation that is copyrighted or otherwise protected.

Outside involvement. We should not engage in outside activities that compromise the credibility or reputation of the Journal Sentinel or pose a conflict of interest, or a reasonable appearance of such conflict, so as to interfere with the proper and impartial performance of our Journal Sentinel duties.

Any regular or continuing employment for anyone other than the Journal Sentinel should be reported in writing to the staff member’s senior editor.

Freelance work.  Freelance work should be approved in advance by a senior editor.  Permission to freelance will be granted only if the Journal Sentinel has no interest in the story and if it will not appear in a competing media outlet.  That has generally been defined as all newspapers published in Wisconsin but also can include other outlets both inside and outside the state. Permission will not be granted to freelance for a publication owned by an entity we cover in the news, such as a sports magazine published by a team or league, or a travel magazine published by the state.

Editors who purchase freelance material should be vigilant about possible breaches of ethical standards in the creation of that material.  For example, we should not purchase a freelance travel story knowing that the writer accepted a free trip to report it.

Accepting payment for a public appearance is subject to the standards outlined in this policy on avoiding conflicts of interest.

Radio, television and Internet appearances.  Participation in public affairs programs is generally allowed.  However, staff members should seek advance approval from an appropriate editor.  Staff members are expected to uphold the Journal Sentinel’s standards of fairness, impartiality and confidentiality when on the air or online to the same degree as they would in print. Any commitment for regular involvement with a radio, television or Internet program requires the prior approval of the editor or managing editor.

Financial activity. Employees should disclose to their department head any financial interests that might conflict or give the appearance of conflict in their Journal Sentinel duties. Business staffers, for example, should not buy or own stock in companies that the newspaper reports about impartially, including all Wisconsin-based firms with the exception of our own. This is not meant to preclude staffers from investing in mutual funds and similar instruments in which subsequent investments are made without the investor’s knowledge.

A staff member should not enter into a business relationship with a news source.

Unpublished information gathered by the Journal Sentinel should not be used by staff members to make investment decisions.

Awards and prizes.  We should not enter contests sponsored by the people we cover.  For example, if the Milwaukee County Board held a contest for best news reporting of the year, we would not enter it.  We do enter contests sponsored by journalism-related organizations, such as Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists.  Entry in other contests is subject to approval by the editor or managing editor. In cases where a staff member’s work is submitted for recognition by someone outside the Journal Sentinel, the staff member should not accept an award without approval from the editor or managing editor. 

Advocacy and political activity.  We should avoid active involvement or membership in any causes -- politics, community affairs, social action, demonstrations -- that could compromise or appear to compromise our ability to report and edit fairly.

We should refrain from signing petitions or otherwise identifying ourselves with public issues, groups or causes. This is not intended to discourage staff members from voting, but we should avoid political activity beyond that, including campaign contributions. Any request for a leave of absence to join a partisan political activity will not be granted.

Staff members who are related to or close friends with a person involved in a political campaign or organization should refrain from covering or making news judgments about that campaign or issue.

Executives on the business side of the paper will, from time to time, serve on the boards of community groups.  It should be firmly understood that absolutely no preferential treatment will be given to groups to which business-side executives belong.

Relationships with advertising

Advertorial and special sections.  Themed advertising sections or pages produced by or on behalf of the Journal Sentinel’s business partners or advertisers must be readily distinguishable from news content by clear labeling and distinctive typography, as determined by the editor. For special sections produced by the newsroom, editors will exercise sole judgment over content.

Contact between advertising and news departments.  For operational concerns, such as daily space planning, ad placement and deadlines, contacts should be made at the level appropriate to the function. On larger issues, such as themes of coverage or news sections, discussions involving advertising should be initiated with the editor, managing editor or department head they designate.

Pre-publication review. Avoid any agreement that a subject may clear a story for publication. Do not submit an article, in either draft or final form, to anyone outside the newsroom prior to publication. Unless you have approval from the editor or managing editor, avoid even disclosing to people outside the Journal Sentinel when an article will be published, especially stories of a sensitive or financial nature.

These conditions also apply to corrections. In the case of a person or organization directly affected by the error, we may inform them that the correction is forthcoming. However, any request for details about its content, placement or timing should be directed to the editor or managing editor.

Section II - Honesty

Attribution of sources. Use of an anonymous source should be approved in advance of publication by the editor, managing editor or news editor in charge. Whenever possible, reporters should get prior approval from an editor before agreeing to protect a source’s identity.

Unnamed sources should be made aware that they could be identified if there are lawsuits or subpoenas involving the coverage and legal efforts to keep them confidential are unsuccessful.

Except in unusual circumstances, we should allow anonymity only when the source has a legitimate fear of suffering harm or reprisals if identified. We should not allow anonymous sources to make personal attacks; criticisms of character should be stated on the record. We will characterize anonymous sources as completely as possible so that readers can make judgments about their authority, expertise or bias.

Fabrication.  Deceiving readers by fabricating news events is prohibited.  Fabrication used as a literary device in a column or feature must be made obvious to the reader.

Plagiarism.  We do not borrow someone else’s work.  Material lifted from other newspapers and other media, including Internet, archive and wire service sources, should be fully attributed. We should give credit to other publications that break exclusive stories worthy of coverage by the Journal Sentinel.

Alteration of images.  Photo illustrations must be clearly labeled as such.  For all other photos, we may alter an image through physical or electronic means only to enhance the technical quality of the image for best reproduction. We do not insert or excise images to change the integrity of a photograph. Cropping and sizing to enhance clarity, impact or composition are encouraged.

Disclosure. People we interview should be made aware that they are speaking to a reporter and their comments may be published. In rare circumstances, if it is the only way to report a story or obtain photographs of vital public interest, non-disclosure may be justified.  The editor or managing editor must approve such cases in advance.