Pressure Points: An FAQ about Ethics Guidelines for Poynter Publishing
This section describes the process we follow in ethical decision-making in the various forms of journalism -- visual, print, online, etc. -- that we practice at Poynter. In providing such detail, we do not presume to provide a script for Poynter or any other publisher to follow. Rather than list a series of specific answers –- in the form of rules and regulations -- we’ve assembled a list of questions -- in the form of circumstances in need of response or resolution. We address the questions with a discussion of the practices we do our best to follow or, if we’re not sure what we’d do in a particular case, a discussion of where we’d start.
Poynter On Call
Ethical decision-making gets especially interesting when organizations must reconcile core values in conflict with one another. We’ve tried to anticipate a number of such situations – and to suggest paths we might pursue to resolve them – in the Frequently Asked Questions that follow.
We expect to add to this FAQ as new issues arise. We welcome your suggestions for additional questions. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: What does Poynter publish?
A: For the purposes of these guidelines, we use the word “publishing” to encompass a wide range of activities. We mean to include a faculty member “publishing” his or her views in an interview broadcast on NPR or Fox News, for example. The term also includes a faculty or staff member writing articles for our print or online publications or participating in message board discussions or other online activities.
On the Internet, we publish Poynter Online, which is designed as a daily resource for working journalists and includes material in such areas as design/graphics, diversity, ethics, leadership, online, reporting/writing/editing, TV/radio, and photojournalism. The most popular area of Poynter Online is Romenesko, the daily weblog of links, memos, and letters produced by Jim Romenesko to track what’s happening in journalism.
In print, Poynter books include "Best Newspaper Writing", an annual collection of prize-winning articles and interviews with their authors, and occasional books by faculty in various disciplines. Recent examples include "Leading by Example", edited by Pam Johnson; Poynter Leadership: Essential Skills & Values, edited by Jill Geisler; and "The Effective Editor" by Foster Davis and Karen F. Dunlap.
Poynter has published two books with Andrews McMeel Publishing: September 11, 2001, a collection of newspaper front pages published after the terrorist attacks, and Pope John Paul II, a collection of newspaper front pages published after the death of the pope.
In addition, Poynter faculty publish a variety of books on their own. Strictly speaking, these guidelines do not cover the work published by Poynter faculty with non-Poynter publishers or on personal websites, except as discussed below. Because of their identification with Poynter, however, Poynter personnel are encouraged to keep these guidelines in mind wherever they publish.
Q: What steps do you take to ensure the accuracy of what Poynter publishes?
A: Both in the editing process (up front as well as back-end) and via distribution of these guidelines, we make our commitment to accuracy clear to staff, faculty, and contributors. The first obligation of accuracy lies with the creator of the work, whether written or visual. Accuracy is also the main goal of our editing process.
Q: Do you apply the same level of editing to everything you publish at Poynter?
A: No. The intensity of editing ranges from faculty members speaking out in interviews (no editing) to the publication of such books as the annual "Best Newspaper Writing", which involves several levels of editing for content, style, and grammar.
Q: What’s the editing process – and the rationale for it -- for each of your major publishing initiatives?
A: Let’s start with the interviews that Poynter faculty do with news organizations around the world on all three main media platforms – print, broadcast, and online. Along with faculty-written material for Poynter’s print and online publications, these interviews represent an important distribution mechanism – in other words, “publishing” -- for Poynter teaching.
Poynter encourages faculty members engaged in such interviews to reflect the values described in the guidelines. Faculty often compare notes and seek one another’s counsel before responding to requests for comment about various journalism issues, questions, and controversies. Poynter Online links to faculty interviews in its Poynter on the Record section in an effort to extend the readership of the faculty comments. In that sense, faculty comments are subject to after-the-fact review by colleagues and supervisors at Poynter, but the process is informal and could not be described as “editing.”
May 30, 2007 update: In the interest of accuracy, we may under some circumstances ask subjects of our coverage to review our reporting before publication. The idea is not to invite others to edit our copy but to give them a chance to challenge our conclusions before we post.
One such circumstance occurs when we are covering our own seminars. To ensure accuracy, we may ask faculty members who are leading the seminars for feedback on content before posting. Since seminar participants follow ground rules of confidentiality during sessions, we’ll also ask faculty members for guidance on what information from the session might be appropriate for publication.
Q: How does Poynter handle corrections when you get something wrong?
A: Online, we summarize our corrections policy like this: “We do our best to correct mistakes on Poynter Online as promptly as possible. If you spot one, please let us know.” If a minor mistake is caught quickly and fixed online, no correction is posted. If it’s more substantial and has been posted for more than a few minutes, a correction is posted to the column and in the main corrections area (http://livex.poynter.org/corrections) of Poynter Online. In print, mistakes are corrected in the next issue of the publication, with some exceptions. The 1999 edition of "Best Newspaper Writing", for example, included a four-page addendum alerting readers that an incorrect version of a winning article had been included in the book. The insert also included the correct version of the article.
Q: What are the procedures for editing the work published on Poynter Online?
A: In some cases, notably Leading Lines and Journalism with a Difference, a Poynter faculty member does a first edit before sending the columns along to Poynter Online.
For most articles, columns and features, a Poynter Online editor reads and edits the copy for both content and editorial style (copy-editing) before it is posted. In some cases, as circumstances warrant, a second editor reads behind the first before or after the material is posted.
Q: What are the exceptions to that policy?
A: On several Poynter weblogs – Romenesko and Convergence Chaser, for example – Poynter staff file directly to the site and colleagues read behind them after publication.
Q: Can you provide some specifics?
A: Senior Online Reporter Jim Romenesko files directly to www.poynter.org/romenesko. Poynter Online editors Bill Mitchell and/or Julie Moos read behind him, alerting him when they spot a typo, misspelling, or a question of fairness or other issue worth discussing. When a linking or posting decision prompts close calls, Romenesko and his editors usually talk prior to publication. On Convergence Chaser, Poynter's Howard Finberg files directly to the site and alerts Poynter Online staff to read behind him. We'll be guided by these procedures as we develop new weblogs as well.
Q: Why the different editing policies for weblogs?
A: Weblogs represent an experiment for journalists, and so does the posting/editing process we’ve developed for them. Our longest running experience with such a service is Romenesko, which has been operating as part of Poynter Online for four years. Entries on Romenesko and other Poynter weblogs are not fully developed articles as much as they are short bulletins alerting readers to material published elsewhere on the Web. Speed is especially important to the process. We recognize, as many analysts of Web journalism have pointed out, that speed can be the enemy of accuracy – especially with no editor involved at the initial stage. We acknowledge the inherent tension, but our experience so far indicates that it is possible for speed and accuracy to co-exist with acceptable trade-offs in the weblog format. The journalists doing the posting under such circumstances are challenged to provide an added measure of self-editing, both for content and style.
There are also practical, logistic considerations. Romenesko, for example, files repeatedly throughout the day, updating and tweaking the page constantly. He does all that in ways that do not fit into the traditional pattern of a reporter filing copy to an editor, who then approves and publishes.
In addition to editors reading behind on weblogs, we invite readers to alert us when and if they spot anything – from typo to possible ethical breach – that appears to conflict with these guidelines.
A: Unattributed quotes diminish the quality of journalism in ways ranging from simple believability to unethical attacks on other people. Poynter uses them rarely, and never when the quote represents an attack on a person or organization. At times, it may be appropriate for Poynter to withhold the name of someone who is quoted. In such cases, an editor of Poynter Online will be informed of the identity of the person whose name is being withheld. In most cases, such quotes will be used only if the following conditions are met: there's a compelling reason not to use the name, the material quoted is especially important, the material quoted does no harm, and there is no other way to get the information out.
A. Yes. This is one of those interesting cases where our publishing values and our teaching values are somewhat in conflict. Part of our publishing role, especially on Romenesko, is to provide a picture of what’s being said about journalism and journalists by a variety of media, not all of them operating with the same standards practiced by Poynter. On his page, Romenesko indicates the publication he is linking to, so readers can make a decision (before clicking) whether it’s a source they’re interested in consulting. Links from Poynter should not be interpreted as a Poynter endorsement of the journalism that resides there. For more on this topic, see: www.poynter.org/aboutromenesko.
Q: How do you handle credit and attribution for the work you publish?
A: On Poynter online, we try to provide the reader with background on the author of articles by linking the byline to his or her personal page on the site. We credit the creators of the visual journalism we publish with credit lines directly beneath the work.
Q: What about manipulations of photographs?
A: We do not alter photographs by "flipping" the image or providing the reader or viewer with a different image than what was originally captured by the photographer. We do use photographs as part of illustrations, sometimes by combining more than one photograph, sometimes by combining a photograph with type. We label such work as a "photo illustration" and include a credit line for the creator of the illustration as well as the photographer.
Q: What are the guidelines for reader comments posted to the automated Feedback functionality attached to most Poynter Online articles?
A: The guidelines are posted here: www.poynter.org/feedbackguidelines. Here’s what they say:
Poynter Online forums and feedback exist to encourage article feedback, criticism, lively debate, and a sense of community among our visitors.
To add comments about individual items, you can post them immediately by clicking on each item's feedback link. In the interest of accountability, only registered users can post immediate feedback so real names are associated with all comments. (You can register by clicking on New User at the top right of the screen. Only first/last name and e-mail address are required.)
Feedback comments are limited to 2,000 characters, or about 300 words.
We will not edit a feedback message without the author's permission. However, we will remove messages that contain any of the following:
• Potentially libelous statements.
• Obscene, explicit, or racist language.
• Personal attacks or threats.
• Commercial product promotions.
• Information taken from another source without permission.
• Private personal information published without consent.
• Comments unrelated to the topic of the forum.
• Hyperlinks to material that is not directly related to the discussion.
If you would like to know why a feedback comment was removed, or if you wish to report activity that violates our guidelines, please send an e-mail to email@example.com.
Q: Are the feedback comments screened and edited before they are published?
A: No. Both for legal and logistic reasons, feedback comments are published as soon as the user clicks SUBMIT. The legal issue: Courts have concluded that online sites that review feedback comments before publication assume legal responsibility for them at that point. If user comments are posted without review, on the other hand, the publisher’s liability kicks in only at the point that someone has alerted them to a potential problem with a comment. Most sites, including Poynter Online, have concluded that they’re better off enabling readers to post directly. Poynter and other sites have also favored that approach for logistic reasons, since reviewing every comment before publication would consume considerable time and attention by relatively small online staffs.
A: This has happened only a few times since we’ve had the Feedback system in place since November 2002. When it does happen, here’s the process that typically unfolds: A Poynter Online editor copies and pastes the content of the posting to an e-mail message before removing the posting from view. The editor then returns the content of the posting to its author with a note explaining why it has been deleted from the site. The editor invites the poster to re-post in a way that satisfies the guidelines. The more difficult challenge involves comments that, while not in violation of Poynter guidelines, are nasty in tone and may not further the discussion at hand. We could broaden the guidelines to prohibit such comments, but we are reluctant to restrict reader comments too tightly. We welcome your counsel on this issue (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Q: What about the publication of reader letters on Romenesko? http://livex.poynter.org/forum/?id=letters
A: At one point, during a site redesign in November 2002, we shifted Romenesko Letters to the automated Feedback system in use for the rest of Poynter Online. Many readers objected, insisting they preferred a system in which Romenesko filters which comments appear and which don’t. So we turned off the Feedback functionality on individual items on Romenesko, with the exception of a link at the top of the page inviting readers to read or add general feedback. Anyone who would like to submit a letter to Romenesko may do so via e-mail to email@example.com. If you would like to communicate with Romenesko but do not want your comments published, simply indicate that in the subject line or body of your note. In rare cases of published letters, Romenesko may agree to withhold the writer’s name.
Q: What about letters that criticize the work of others?
A: If Romenesko decides the letter is sufficiently interesting or significant to publish, he proceeds as follows: Letters critical of others will include the letter-writer’s name. In the case of criticism aimed at an individual or an individual’s ongoing work, Romenesko sends a copy of the critical letter to the individual who is being criticized and invites response. If such a response is forthcoming, the criticism and the response will be published simultaneously. If the critiqued individual chooses not to publish a response, or does not respond to Romenesko’s efforts to contact him or her within a reasonable period, the original critique may be published on its own. In the case of criticism of an organization or a particular article or portion thereof, Romenesko posts the letter without inviting response. He welcomes subsequent comments from anyone whose work has been challenged or criticized, and posts them promptly and prominently. These guidelines may not necessarily fit all circumstances, and Romenesko and Poynter Online editors use their best judgment to make exceptions as appropriate.
Q: What about the newsroom memos that show up in the Romenesko Memos section? Does Romenesko get the authors’ permission before publishing them?
A: Romenesko confirms the legitimacy of the memos before publication, but he does not seek permission. This is among the most controversial aspects of Poynter Online, with some newsroom executives telling us that the prospect of their memos appearing online has made it more difficult for them to manage and lead their staffs. We acknowledge such problems, but, on balance, believe it serves a healthy purpose to shed light on the operations of newsrooms big and small around the country via the memos. Every day, Romenesko receives many more suggested links than he posts to his page. Neither does he publish every letter or memo that he receives. He makes the best editorial judgment he can, occasionally consulting with Poynter Online editors in cases involving sensitive issues. Don’t hesitate to contact Romenesko or Poynter Online Editor Bill Mitchell if you have a suggestion or concern about the page or any of its elements. You can read more about how the Romenesko page comes together here: .
Q: How do you differentiate between straight reporting and opinion in Poynter publications?
A: Most of what Poynter publishes – in articles or via interviews – involves a mix of reporting, analysis, and opinion. This is especially true of the columns published on Poynter Online. Whether it’s a brief item on Romenesko or a more fully developed discussion in Aly Colón’s Talk About Ethics, the columns reflect the personality, background, and judgment of the author. Many of the centerpiece articles published at the top of the homepage contain less opinion than the columns. But we encourage our writers to provide the kind of analysis we believe will be helpful to readers. One of the reasons we link to authors’ personal pages on Poynter Online is to provide the reader with as much background as possible.
Q: How does Poynter deal with conflicts of interest – real, potential, or perceived – in what it publishes?
A: We try to be aware of potential conflicts, avoid them where possible, and disclose them when unavoidable.
Q: Let’s get specific. Where does Poynter get its money?
A: Poynter is in the unusual situation as a non-profit school – a 501(c)(3) public charity by Internal Revenue Service classification -- that owns a for-profit publishing company, Times Publishing. Nelson Poynter designed this arrangement when he founded the Modern Media Institute in 1975 and later willed the stock in his publishing company to the school. The arrangement is designed as one way of ensuring the independence of the St. Petersburg Times. You can read more about the history here. The Institute, which was given its founder’s name after his death, is operating this year with a budget of $8.8 million. Six million dollars of that is provided by Times Publishing, which collects revenues from the St. Petersburg Times, Congressional Quarterly,Florida Trend and some smaller publications. We expect to collect about $400,000 from fees paid by news organizations for training of their staff members in Poynter seminars and programs. In addition, we have received the first $560,000 of a $2.8 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for the development and operation of an e-learning program for journalists. We expect to collect about $50,000 from the sale of Poynter publications. We currently do not accept advertising or sponsorship for Poynter publications and websites, but that possibility is under discussion. (Dec. 12, 2006 update: We launched the Poynter Career Center, which includes help-wanted advertising, in October of this year. We posted our first banner advertising on the site last week. You find details at www.poynter.org/advertising.) Detailed financial records for Poynter are available for inspection at the IRS in Washington, D.C., at Poynter’s campus in St. Petersburg, Fl., or online at Guidestar.org, where you’ll find our IRS filings for the previous year.
Q: What influence do these various revenue streams hold over what Poynter publishes?
A: Poynter policy is set by its officers and its Board of Trustees, with counsel from its National Advisory Board. Times Publishing CEO Andrew Barnes is chair of both the Poynter Trustees and the board of Times Publishing. Day to day, Poynter operates its publishing ventures without direct involvement of either board. Major decisions, such as the expansion of Poynter Online in recent years, are reviewed and approved by the trustees. The trustees also discuss publishing-related issues and controversies as they arise. We can think of no examples of specific policies or practices imposed or even proposed by the trustees. It’s fair to conclude, however, that the trustees would not hesitate to intervene if Poynter engaged in publishing that they regarded as inappropriate or unethical – or to propose new forms of publishing it might regard as promising. The National Advisory Board meets at Poynter in January each year and includes the school’s online and print publications among the areas it reviews and discusses.
Q: How do you guard against the St. Petersburg Times receiving special treatment on Romenesko or elsewhere on Poynter Online?
A: When reporting in Poynter publications about the Times, Congressional Quarterly or other operations owned by Times Publishing, we do our best to disclose Poynter's relationship (even if it sometimes bogs down the copy). When unfavorable reports are published about the Times -- or any of its related operations, including Poynter -- we encourage Romenesko to approach such reports as independently as possible. In light of the pain we sometimes cause other news organizations by linking to unfavorable reports about them, it’s only fair that we apply the same standards to Poynter and its affiliates.
Q: What about the fees Poynter collects from news organizations? Does Poynter feel beholden to these organizations and/or reluctant to publish material they might regard as damaging?
A: As you can see from the numbers above, tuition fees represent about five percent of Poynter revenues, smaller still when viewed in the context of a particular news organization. That’s not to say some news executives don’t make their objections heard. At least one newspaper executive in recent years has declared her intention to block Poynter training for her staff because of her objections to the publication of material on Romenesko. More than financial, the rub we feel in such circumstances is the tension between competing views of how we can be most helpful to newsrooms. It’s not a good thing if a newsroom opts out of training because of objections to our publishing. But the resolution of the conflict does not necessarily include a change in our publishing practices.
Q: What about that $2.8 million from the Knight Foundation? How much influence does that buy the foundation when it comes to Poynter publishing?
A: We try to respond quickly to anyone who contacts us, but it’s fair to say that an e-mail or telephone message from someone at the Knight Foundation generates an especially prompt response at Poynter these days. When it comes to specifics of publishing, Poynter has collaborated with Knight in the publication of the report of its survey of newsroom training needs and assessments. From time to time, Knight Foundation staffers suggest links for Romenesko and ideas for other areas of Poynter Online. We’ve followed up on some and not others. Romenesko gets lots of link tips every day, and declines and pursues tips from Poynter, Knight, and other sources as he sees fit.
Q: Does Poynter solicit or accept the free use of equipment and software as part of special deals with manufacturers?
A: Yes. Camera manufacturers provide participants and faculty in our Visual Edge and other Visual Journalism programs with free use of their equipment during the course of the seminar. This represents a significant benefit for Poynter, since it enables us to supplement equipment that we own with the borrowed equipment from manufacturers. Poynter makes no endorsement of any equipment, but the loaner program does provide manufacturers with the opportunity to expose their products to journalists who may be able to influence their purchase in their newsrooms.
Q: What about potential conflicts of interest involving individual members of the Poynter faculty or staff?
A. Our objective is, first, to avoid such conflicts and, when they do exist, to disclose them and act appropriately as a result. We do our best to strike an appropriate balance between accountability to consumers of our publishing and respect for the privacy of our colleagues. You’ll notice, in response to some of the questions that follow, answers that seek to reconcile these objectives in different ways.
Q: Apart from the organization-to-organization influence that some news operations might seek to wield, what about the personal work for hire that Poynter faculty do for news organizations?
A: Every year, Poynter faculty members are allowed 20 days each to perform consulting work for news organizations. Sometimes, the faculty member conducts a workshop for the news organization in his or her area of specialization, e.g., leadership or reporting or ethics. Other times, consulting can involve strategic advice. Poynter personnel doing such work are paid their regular Poynter salary for the consulting days. Poynter caps the daily fee they charge at $1,500. Some news organizations say they like the arrangement because it enables them to provide training for many more staff members, at their own location, than they are able to send to Poynter. Poynter's consulting policy has two objectives: keeping Poynter faculty connected to the real world of newsrooms, and enabling faculty members to supplement their income in a way that’s consistent with Poynter goals. As a practical matter, faculty members sometimes write about (with permission) some of what they’ve observed during their consulting work. Typically, in such cases, the faculty member discloses the consulting relationship in the article, or in a note at the bottom. In addition, we publish a list of organizations that have retained Poynter personnel for consulting -- paid and unpaid -- in the previous calendar year.
Q: What limitations do you place on Poynter employees and contributors in terms of their publishing outside of Poynter? Let’s say a Poynter staff member is critical of a politician or news organization on his or her personal weblog. What happens if the staff member is then asked by Poynter Online to do an analysis of, say, that politician’s website?
A: We ask Poynter employees and contributors to keep their Poynter role in mind as they pursue their personal publishing, either in freelance articles, books, broadcast, or online. The issue suggests a range of responsibilities and responses. Poynter does not expect an unpaid contributor to Poynter Online to restrict his or her personal publishing. At the same time, if such a contributor has published views elsewhere relevant to something he or she produces for Poynter, we ask the contributor to alert the appropriate Poynter editor. We do that so the editor can decide whether the views expressed elsewhere represent a conflict, or whether readers should be alerted to what the contributor has published elsewhere. In the case of Poynter employees, Poynter asks that they avoid personal publishing that would compromise their ability to fulfill their Poynter responsibilities in the seminar room or in Poynter publications. Such conflicts would diminish their value to the consumers of Poynter publishing and, as a result, to Poynter.
Q: What restrictions apply to Poynter faculty and staff in terms of the stocks or other securities they own that might result in a conflict or appearance of one?
A: Poynter faculty and staff are free to own whatever stocks and other securities they choose, with the understanding that they not involve themselves in decision-making on behalf of Poynter that involves firms in which they have a stake. When in doubt, staff are instructed to consult with a supervisor. At least once a year, during a discussion of these guidelines, Poynter faculty and staff will be encouraged to review their personal investments and to explore whether they represent any conflict with their Poynter work.
Q: Let’s talk about some potential influences and conflicts beyond the realm of finances. What about membership on boards and community organizations?
A: Poynter faculty and staff are free to belong to whatever boards and organizations they choose to, with the understanding that they disclose their participation whenever relevant and invite the scrutiny of outsiders and colleagues alike. Faculty and staff are encouraged to list on their Poynter Online personal page the activities and memberships that may be relevant to their Poynter work.
Q: Nelson Poynter made a big deal about the importance of locally-owned and operated news organizations. Does that put big media companies such as Gannett, Scripps, and Knight Ridder at an unfair disadvantage when you write about them in Poynter publications and on Poynter Online?
A: Part of the Poynter mission is to help media leaders build strong businesses. We don’t know exactly where individual faculty members stand on the issue of independent vs. group ownership of news organizations. Based on what we hear during seminar and faculty discussions, though, it’s fair to say that the prevailing opinion at Poynter favors independent ownership. That places a special burden on us to be fair and even-handed in our coverage of news organizations that are not independently owned.
Q: Do these guidelines apply to the St. Petersburg Times and other operations of Times Publishing?
A: No. They apply only to publishing by The Poynter Institute. The St. Petersburg Times follows a standard of accuracy that it publishes on page two of the newspaper every day and on its website.
Q: Do you recommend these guidelines -- and this FAQ -- as an industry model?
A: No. Poynter's situation as a school that also does journalism is quite different from the news organizations it serves. We believe the process we followed in developing these guidelines may be useful for other organizations. Just let us know if you'd like to discuss it. In brief, the process began in October 2003 with a group of Poynter faculty, staff, and website contributors discussing the values we believed such guidelines should reflect. Poynter's Roy Clark, Aly Colon, and Bill Mitchell then drafted the guidelines and FAQ you find here. We circulated the drafts, both inside and outside Poynter, and revised based on the feedback. We expect that process will continue now that we have published the guidelines and the FAQ. We welcome your feedback here.
Also contributing to the preparation of the guidelines: Karen Dunlap, Jill Geisler, Kenny Irby, Pam Johnson, Vicki Krueger, Larry Larsen, Julie Moos, Leslie Pelley, Paul Pohlman, Jim Romenesko, Sreenath Sreenivasan, Ola Seifert, Bob Steele, and Keith Woods.