Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star: Ethics code
We earn credibility through truthful reporting, ethical conduct, honesty and integrity. Without the trust of our readers, we will be unable to adequately perform our mission of providing news, analysis and an open forum for the exchange of ideas and opinions.
This code of ethics is a statement of our principles and applies to all editorial department employees and freelancers. It may not cover every situation, but will serve as the basis for discussion and final interpretation by the editor and managing editor.
In the end, the simplest rule of thumb for ethical decisionmaking is this: Don’t do anything that you wouldn’t be willing to explain on the front page of the paper.
SECTION ONE: SEEK TRUTH AND REPORT IT AS FULLY AS POSSIBLE
Freedom of the press
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the state’s open meetings and open records laws do not belong to us; they belong to all the people. It is, however, our job to defend the First Amendment and these laws on their behalf and to resist attempts to weaken them. We uphold the right to speak unpopular opinions and we provide a forum for clashing viewpoints.
In publishing a story quoting anonymous sources, we vouch for the veracity of what’s said. That puts our own credibility on the line. The Journal Star quotes unnamed sources sparingly and only if: (1) The reporter has tried hard to persuade the source to use his or her name and explained that anonymous quotes have less credibility with readers than quotes from named sources. (2) The information from the anonymous source is crucial to the story, and we can’t get it any other way. (3) The information is considered unimpeachable or has been verified to the fullest extent practicable. (4) The editor or managing editor knows the name of the source and OKs using the information without a name.
The editor shares the reporter’s obligation to protect the confidentiality of the source. However, in some situations, a court can order us to reveal sources. If the situation is serious enough, we will risk being held in contempt of court rather than reveal the source.
If an unidentified source must be used, the reason should be stated and the source should be described as fully as possible without identifying him or her so readers can gauge the source’s credibility.
When practical, we will edit wire stories to avoid reliance on unnamed quotes.
Use of quotes and editing of quotes
Readers are right to expect that statements contained within quotation marks represent exactly what the person said. As a result, reporters should use direct quotes only when they are certain of the accuracy and only in proper context. While it is acceptable to eliminate a person’s “ums” or stutters, quotes must not be edited for style or grammar – paraphrase instead. It’s acceptable to use quotes with poor grammar to reflect the local vernacular or if it is necessary to add flavor or make a point in the story.
Fairness and right of reply
It’s important to get both sides but even better to get all sides. We should seek out the advocates and the opponents, but also the undecided and the silent. A person or entity being criticized in a news story should have the opportunity to respond – and the response should get fair play in stories. We will make every effort to elicit a response and will consider delaying publication if it seems likely that will allow us to get a response. If the person or a spokesperson cannot be reached for a comment, we will state that in the story and indicate what effort was made to get a comment.
In the interest of fairness, we try to report the eventual outcome of any major criminal charges that we report. This is particularly important in cases in which an individual is exonerated.
Follow-up stories that contradict the main point of a prior story should get equal or better play whenever possible.
Diversity and racial identification
It’s our job to reflect the community. Each day’s newspaper creates a snapshot of Lincoln and southeast Nebraska. The snapshot shouldn’t overlook minority residents.
Diverse faces and voices should be woven into the everyday fabric of the newspaper, but, unless relevant, we don’t identify someone’s race or ethnicity in a story.
This is particularly important in coverage of crime. We will report suspect descriptions when the information is detailed enough to be useful to people who want to protect themselves or help police find the suspect. We will avoid descriptions that give only the person’s race and gender. Describing a suspect as an Asian male in his teens is not enough to distinguish him from plenty of other people in this town. But it may be enough when you can also report height, weight and a clothing description. When in doubt, consult with the editor or managing editor.
Under most circumstances, reporters or photographers will identify themselves to news sources. This is particularly important when interviewing or photographing ordinary citizens, who should be aware they may be quoted or depicted in the newspaper. There might be times, however, when circumstances will dictate not identifying ourselves. Only the editor or managing editor may approve such exceptions.
Paying for news
Sources are not paid for news, either in cash or in promises of future coverage or other favors. Such payments would raise serious questions about the validity of the news and the motives of seller and buyer. Only Journal Star employees or freelancers are paid for news or news tips.
Photography, new technology and alterations
In the same way that reporters do not make up quotes, photographers do not create scenes, reconstruct scenes or re-enact events with the purpose of making them appear as if they were “found” moments. Personality portraits and studio illustrations should not be staged in such a way that a typical reader could be confused or take it as a candid moment.
Posed photographs, photo illustrations, computer enhancements, colorized and composite photographs may be used with feature stories – but, if a reader could be confused by the image, it should be clearly labeled as such in the caption, out of regard for the public’s trust.
Removing or adding an object in an editorial photograph is not permitted. Nor is flopping a photograph to reverse the image.
Presenting another person’s work as your own is plagiarism and will not be tolerated. Material from other sources, such as press releases, literary works or other newspapers, must be clearly attributed in the body of the story. When we modify wire service material, we should change the byline only when we make significant changes – and even then we must credit the wire service in the story or at the end.
Internet sources and publication
Make certain any electronic communication is genuine and verify all material gathered online unless it is known to be from a credible source. Material disseminated online should be solidly confirmed and all normal standards for fairness apply. Before we post any document on our Web site, it must first be read in its entirety by an appropriate staff member.
SECTION TWO: ACT INDEPENDENTLY
Civic or political activity
Journal Star employees and freelancers should be independent but not detached. They retain the rights and duties of citizenship, including the right to vote. But the newspaper should be impartial and also be perceived as such. If an actual or perceived conflict emerges, declare it.
Employees are encouraged to be involved in volunteer activities, including churches, clubs, sports, professional and most non-profit groups. Volunteers should be clear that they are not representing the newspaper and that the group should not expect any special consideration or treatment. Avoid taking publicity or public-relations positions because of the perception that it will result in special access to the newspaper. Active leadership in any group should be discussed with a supervising editor.
Without supervisor consent, an employee or freelancer should not be involved in coverage of any organization that they or an immediate family member support through membership or direct donation.
Avoid membership and involvement in political and governmental groups and activities. Serving on a board or commission is dubious, and is unacceptable if the group collects or distributes tax dollars.
Volunteering for a campaign or running for office is unacceptable. Staff members should avoid advertising or going beyond the stage of healthy discussion in espousing viewpoints on public issues while at work. It casts doubt upon their impartiality. Signing petitions, participating in rallies and protests, making political contributions or displaying political material gives the appearance of a conflict of interest. Such activities are strongly discouraged for all staff and forbidden for those involved in coverage of the issue. Reassignment may be necessary to avoid real or perceived conflicts. Note: this does not apply to including a party affiliation on your voter registration and voting. Be aware of how a spouse’s or immediate family member’s involvement may reflect on your credibility.
Be wary of friendships or romances with sources, particularly public officials or figures. Employees have a right to a life outside the office, but can never totally disassociate themselves from being journalists. Our readers have every right to expect that we make decisions independently of personal relationships. In some cases, reassignment may be necessary to avoid real or perceived conflicts.
Use of connections for personal gain
Employees shall not use their positions with the Journal Star to get any benefit or advantage in commercial transactions or personal business for themselves, their families, friends or acquaintances.
Employees shall not use the company name, reputation, phone number or stationery to imply threat of retaliation or pressure, to curry favor or to seek personal gain.
Disclose investments, real estate holdings and business interests whenever there may be a potential conflict. Under no circumstances should a reporter, photographer or editor have a direct role in covering a story in which they or their families have a personal financial stake. Shares held in a fund are excluded. Reassignment or divestment may be necessary to avoid real or perceived conflicts.
Unless approved by a supervisor, staff members must not serve on boards of directors of for-profit corporations or businesses.
Coverage of the Journal Star, Lee Enterprises and its employees
It may be impossible to avoid conflicts when covering the Lincoln Journal Star, Lee Enterprises or employees of either company. Except for clearly promotional stories (job announcements, introductions of new products, etc.), we will endeavor to cover the company in the same way as other businesses. Employees will be treated the same as any other citizen in the event of criminal or civil charges, police calls and printing of public records. When there is any doubt, we will err on the side of publishing the information. Most readers will conclude that we have a conflict on any story involving the company or a fellow employee, so they will weigh that in reading a story. As a result, ownership of Lee Enterprises stock will not disqualify any employee from being involved in coverage of the company.
Freelancing, radio and TV appearances, personal appearances and outside employment
Employees may take an outside job provided it does not interfere with or compromise Journal Star duties and it is cleared with a supervisor. Employees should be careful to do outside work on their own time. Outside work includes freelancing for other publications, writing columns and stories for online services, teaching, consulting, and appearances on radio and television shows. In such work, columnists and editorial writers may express opinions, but all other employees should remain as neutral and objective as they would in newsgathering, writing and publishing.
Staffers must not work for competitors nor should they work in a paid or volunteer capacity for any organization they cover routinely or may be expected to cover as part of their assigned beat.
Speaking engagements and other personal appearances are allowed and staff members may accept travel reimbursement or honorariums, except in those situations where it would be a clear conflict of interest or give the appearance of such.
Information and other material gathered on Journal Star time must be offered to the Journal Star first. Such information and material belong to the Journal Star and any other use of the information and material must be approved by the editor or managing editor.
With supervisor approval, company equipment, including camera gear and computers, may be used for limited freelance ventures. Company material, such as film, must not be used.
Acceptance of awards from partisan groups or causes, or from organizations or special-interest groups that we may normally cover, may create the appearance of conflict of interest or raise doubt about our ability to report fairly on that group or organization. Reporters, photographers, editors and artists should check with supervisors before entering a contest or accepting an award.
Gifts and freebies
The acceptance of gifts or preferential treatment compromises or gives the appearance of compromising the integrity of the newspaper. Employees generally shall not accept business-connected gifts, sample products or free services -- but consider the intent. If the gift is from a business grateful for favorable publicity and hopeful for more in the future, return it politely with a note explaining the newspaper’s policy. If the gift is small and from a reader delighted we wrote a nice feature about her grandson, accept it and acknowledge it graciously. If you have any doubt, return the gift politely -- or if refusal would be awkward, donate the gift to charity or offer it as a prize to readers who contribute to the paper, then write to the donor explaining our policy. Gift or sample products that are of token or insignificant value (under $20), such as T-shirts, calendars, pencils or key chains, may be accepted. Bottles of liquor or wine shall be considered of more than token value and may not be kept.
Books, records and tapes sent to the Journal Star for review purposes are accepted as news releases and may be kept by the appropriate staff member with consent of the department editor. Those that are not reviewed or that will not be used for background or as reference material will be given to charity or made available to others in the newsroom. Such items must never be sold for personal profit.
Perishables, by nature, are handled differently. Food may be offered up for newsroom consumption, within reason, though large amounts should be returned or donated to a local food pantry.
Whenever possible, we pay for our own meals. Use common sense and common courtesy when offered refreshments or food. A slice of pizza or any meal of less than $10 value is probably OK, but a prime rib dinner might give the perception that our coverage is being influenced.
When covering a speech or similar event, pay for the meal or just don’t eat. When the cost of a meal includes a sum tacked on to raise funds (for instance, a $300-a-plate political dinner), we will pay only what we estimate to be the price of the meal if it were to be purchased in a restaurant. (This is not meant to prohibit corporate contributions to charity fund-raisers.)
Paying our way (tickets, events, travel, etc.)
We will not accept, solicit or use free tickets or passes to public events, such as movies, business or government seminars, plays, fairs, concerts and sports events where admission is being charged for the public. Working press passes or tickets for employees covering or reviewing the events mentioned above may be accepted if that is the generally accepted practice. Employees who are not covering the event but who legitimately need to be there for background purposes also may accept working press passes or tickets. Such passes must never be given away or sold. Normal use of press facilities, such as press rooms, press boxes and press parking areas, is permitted.
If an organization sends free tickets to the paper, they should be sent back with an explanation of our policies. Tickets received in consideration for paid promotions or advertising may be accepted.
Transportation necessary for the performance of professional duties shall be paid for by the Journal Star in all possible cases – including travel on a press plane of a political candidate or sports team. The editor or managing editor may give approval for special travel arrangements that would be the sole way to effectively complete an assignment, such as when traveling with the governor to a news event or when military transit is involved.
Family and friends
Unless approved by a supervisor, employees should not write, photograph, illustrate or make news judgments about anyone related to them by blood or marriage, or with whom they have a close personal relationship. This does not apply to first-person stories or stories in which the relationships are clearly spelled out. Nor shall personal relationships within the newsroom affect news judgment
Objectivity in working with public agencies
Assist law enforcement authorities only when there is a clear and compelling public interest at stake – and only with approval of the editor or managing editor. Never let cooperation get in the way of holding officials accountable and telling the truth. Take care when cooperating with government and other institutions on public journalism projects. Often, these efforts are worthwhile and in the readers’ interests. But they can also compromise our independence.
Independence from other newspaper departments
Never let advertising or business relationships with the newspaper influence our news decisions. We serve the long-range business interests of the paper and the community by being independent.
Advertisers attempting to influence coverage deserve only a polite refusal.
SECTION THREE: MINIMIZE HARM
Identification of suspects and juveniles
We generally do not identify suspects until some formal, legal action has been taken, filing or issuing of a search or arrest warrant, filing of charges, an arrest, etc., and we do not do it automatically even then. There may be circumstances in which we would name a suspect, but exceptions must be approved by the editor or managing editor. Remember that the accused person is a suspect and is innocent until proven guilty.
We generally do not name juveniles who remain in juvenile court. This is by Journal Star choice, not by law. Exceptions should be approved by the editor or managing editor. If the crime is serious and it seems likely the juvenile will be charged as an adult, we generally will name a juvenile at the time some formal, legal action is taken, such as an arrest.
Respecting people’s privacy
Journal Star staffers show respect for the dignity, privacy and rights of people encountered in the course of gathering and presenting the news. Exposure of private aspects of people’s lives should always be justified by legitimate public interest. While our first goal is to gather and report news, we do so with sensitivity and with respect for the privacy of people who find themselves in newsworthy situations, especially people who have little or no experience dealing with the news media.
Take care when dealing with potentially offensive photos, particularly accident or dead body photos. We should not withhold sensitive photos just because they might offend. But we should temper our journalistic impulses with questions about how we will affect our readers and subjects.
The Journal Star carefully considers whether to print the name of a crime victim, weighing the news value against the possibility of revictimizing the person. We generally would not name a crime victim if we thought it would jeopardize the person’s safety. In general, we name crime victims when: (1) The victim is dead. (2) The victim is a public figure. (3) It was a mutual fight or shooting. (4) The person was in a traffic accident or fire. (5) The person agrees in an interview to be named. (6) The crime was committed in a public place and the victim was badly hurt.
In the case of sex crimes and those involving juvenile victims, we generally will not identify the victim without consent. We generally will withhold exact addresses of residences where crimes have occurred, unless there is a compelling reason to print them.
Vulgarities and obscenities
Avoid using vulgarities, obscenities or racially offensive remarks, but recognize there are rare cases when printing them is necessary or appropriate. Any such use should be cleared by the editor or managing editor. A good way to gauge whether a term is vulgar or obscene: would you want your 5-year-old using the word in a conversation with your mother?
SECTION FOUR: BE ACCOUNTABLE
Corrections and clarifications
When we determine we have published inaccurate information, we run prompt straightforward corrections. We do not disguise corrections or gloss over them in a follow-up story. Corrections and clarifications are generally published on Page 2 of the main news section, or on Page 2 of the sports section, along with an invitation to readers to report errors. Journal Star staffers should be accountable for their reports, and readers or other affected people should be offered a reasonable opportunity to reply. Complaints of inaccuracy that are not satisfactorily resolved by the reader and the originating staff member must be handled by the staff member’s supervisor.
Enforcement of the code
Staffers violating this policy may be subject to disciplinary action that, in severe cases, could include dismissal.
This ethics code was drafted by Journal Star editors and staff members with heavy reliance on codes of ethics adopted by other news organizations. In many cases, whole sections or sentences have been adopted in their entirety for use in the Journal Star code.
The framework for the code was adapted from guidelines and suggestions made by Bob Steele, director of the ethics program for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Newspaper codes used in drafting this document include: Arizona Republic, Phoenix; Fort Wayne (Ind.) Journal Gazette; The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.; San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News; Statesman Journal, Salem, Ore.; Tampa (Fla.) Tribune; and Wisconsin State Journal, Madison.