July 15, 2003

Editor’s Note:  Poynter brought together this group of 18 leading journalists to address a range of nuts and bolts issues that — before the Jayson Blair affair — would have seemed way too basic for such a high-powered group. The issues are basic, but the report that follows underlines how central they are to producing credible newspapers.  

At a difficult moment in the history of the news business, a group of newspaper leaders met at the Poynter Institute. Over three days, they discussed the standards and practices of newspaper journalism in the light, or shadow, of recent news scandals.

These five topics were chosen, not only for their essential importance to the world of journalism, but because they emerged as sources of confusion and consternation during recent months of journalistic travail.

These leaders saw this as a period of opportunity to improve things in American journalism. They stressed the importance of editorial leadership for developing a positive and responsible newsroom culture. They spoke of the values of making themselves more transparent and responsive to readers. They shared tools of accountability. Most of all they spoke of the value of strong journalism in the public interest.

In small groups and large, they focused on five areas of concern, seeking consensus but prepared for disagreement:

1. Leadership and culture.

2. Accessibility and accountability.

3. Attribution and sourcing.

4. Corrections and clarifications.

5. Bylines and datelines.

These five topics were chosen, not only for their essential importance to the world of journalism, but because they emerged as sources of confusion and consternation during recent months of journalistic travail.

The group included top editors, publishers, reporters, ombudsmen, and journalism educators. They engaged in debates like the ones that have been under way in many newsrooms, and will be initiated in others in the weeks and months ahead.

Framed as opportunities, these recurring themes surfaced during the conversation and debate. This was a moment in time when journalists could:

• Recommit themselves to public service, truth-seeking and accuracy.

• Be more transparent.

• Revisit and, when necessary, tighten up standards.

• Communicate standards, for staffers and readers.

• Commit resources to training at all levels of the enterprise.

• Involve the staff in the development, articulation, and enforcement of standards.

• Create new tools of verification, accountability, and attribution.

• Recommit themselves to a covenant with readers that promises we will be open and honest with them.

• Explain to readers and non-readers how and why we do what we do.

Leadership and Culture
The primary role of a newspaper editor is to inform readers and serve the public interest.

The top editors have a special responsibility to communicate that mission, both within the newspaper and outside it, and to lead the development and practice of standards that serve and reinforce that mission. Editors must actively seek feedback from readers and staff. Failures occur when editors are out of touch with either of these groups.

The elements of that responsibility include:

• Consistent application of journalistic standards to problems, issues and conflicts. Senior editors have the primary responsibility to make sure that the newspaper’s practice meets its statements of aspiration and policy, to be sure that “the video” (of actual practice) matches” the audio” (of stated policy). They must be skilled in a variety of leadership styles as dictated by circumstances; comfortable with a collaborative style, but willing to make quick decisions when needed.

• Frequent conversation and consistent communication with their staffs and with their readers about those standards, using specific examples as opportunities to describe larger principles and standards. Editors should be listening as well as talking during these conversations, although they bear the ultimate responsibility for them.

• An emphasis on training for journalists about newsroom standards, preferably tailored to the experience and responsibility of the various journalistic groups. The needs of a new reporter may be more basic than those of a veteran journalist, but all journalists – especially those new to news organizations — need a common understanding of the organization’s standards.

• The primary role in articulating the journalistic standards of the newspaper to other forms of journalism undertaken by their companies, such as on-line or broadcast news reports. The practices of those other branches of the enterprise will help define the standards of the organization as a whole, both for readers and journalists.



Accountability and Accessibility
Freedom of the press is critical to our democracy, but journalistic independence can beget arrogance, or the perception of it, which alienates readers. News leaders, therefore, must create a culture in which connections with readers—and non-readers, as well—are valued, sought, created and maintained. The news process must be as transparent as possible, informed by and accountable to public concerns, while retaining journalistic integrity and independence.

Newspapers should be more open and accessible to readers. This is key to accountability. Editors should explain how the paper works, and how readers can engage with it, how decisions are made and how tough cases are handled. The choice of strategies—whether ombudsmen, accuracy surveys, editors columns, reader councils—depends on the resources, community and traditions of the newspaper.

Journalistic standards and accepted practices should be articulated, communicated to the staff, discussed, followed and enforced. Disparities in practices need to be noted, reconciled when possible and clearly explained when not. The staff and the public should know what’s going on.

Newspapers need to explain themselves to their readers in an ongoing, open and consistent way—to do a better job of telling our story.



Attribution and Sourcing
Our responsibility to the reader is to make clear where we got our information.

We focused on two areas: anonymous sources and attribution in narrative reconstructions.

The use of anonymous sources should be a last resort when the story is of compelling public interest and the information is not available any other way. A supervising editor must know the source’s identity.

We also agreed that:

• Anonymous sources should be encouraged to go on the record.

• We should weigh the source’s reliability and disclose to readers the source’s potential biases.

• The more specific we can be in describing the source in the story, the better.

• Anonymous sources should not be used for personal attacks, accusations of illegal activity, or merely to add color.

• The source must have first-hand knowledge.

• Journalists should not lie in a story to protect a source.

Journalists may not be able to avoid the use of anonymous sources in such places as Washington, D.C., but they should constantly challenge their use. The use of anonymous sources should never be routine.

News wire services should share their standards for the use of anonymous sources and aspire to the ones articulated above.

Narratives are a form of vicarious experience and put readers at the scene. We admire the power of this technique but remain concerned about making clear to the reader where the information comes from. Use deft textual attribution, detailed editor’s notes, or the newspaper equivalent of “footnotes.”

The attribution in the narrative should ensure the reader knows the information is verifiable.



Corrections and Clarifications
Newspapers must develop a comprehensive and aggressive policy of inviting and publishing corrections of fact and clarifying errors of context. Papers should make clear that they welcome corrections from readers and provide instructions on how readers can submit corrections. The newspaper should state its corrections policy and philosophy. Internally, newspapers need to establish a system so corrections from all sources (including staff-generated complaints) are immediately surfaced and evaluated. Reporters and editors are obligated to make any potential error known to a supervising editor.

• Newspapers’ willingness to correct their mistakes has made us the leading medium in terms of accuracy. Improving the process strengthens the medium and contributes to greater credibility.

• Top editors should make clear to staff and readers the newspaper’s clear commitment to correcting mistakes.

• Editors should make use of clarifications and editor’s notes when necessary.

• Corrections policies should be standard throughout all news departments. There should be the same standard for accuracy in news, sports, features, graphics and others.

• Corrections policy should also be consistent across all platforms in the organization – online, broadcast, etc.

• Newsrooms should lead a company-wide commitment to accuracy and correction of mistakes in advertisements , promotional announcements, etc.

• Newsrooms must support and encourage staffers to openly report and correct their errors, and should take action when a pattern of inaccuracy is detected.

• Corrections should be written for readers. They should be understandable, forthright and not defensive. Readers should be able to understand the error and evaluate the newspaper’s work.

• Errors of omission or incomplete coverage should be dealt with in clarifications, corrections or additional coverage.

• Newspapers should have tools to track and analyze correction patterns.

• When a correction is printed, the newspapers’ archive (digital or document) must also be corrected.

• How do you build a culture of openness and willingness to deal with corrections?

• How best to deal with a performance problem involving accuracy? What combination of training and toughness is best employed to solve each problem?

• How do newspapers encourage readers to be more engaged in asking for corrections and clarifications?

• Should corrections identify the source or genesis of the error where appropriate? Not for blame but for reader comprehension?



Bylines and Datelines
ON BYLINES: The byline should tell the reader the name of the reporter or writer who is primarily responsible for the story. Readers deserve to know who contributed to a story. This should include the use of taglines or boxes that reveal the key contributors to a story, as well as internal credits in the text. Do not mislead.

This policy needs to be explained to readers and the news staff, fully and often.

ON DATELINES: At least on stories beyond a newspaper’s immediate coverage area, a dateline, in combination with a byline, means that the reporter gathered most of the information on the location.

There is no consensus of when and how to use datelines in other circumstances. Some newspapers, for example, are experimenting with typography such as overlines and headlines to make it clear to readers where stories originated.

Whatever a newspaper’s policy, it should be regularly and fully explained to readers and to the news staff.




This conference was led by Poynter faculty Gregory Favre, Bob Steele, and Roy Peter Clark. This report was produced by contributor Bob Andelman, online editor Bill Mitchell, and photographer Jim Stem.

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Bill Mitchell is a Poynter Affiliate who most recently led Poynter’s entrepreneurial and international programs and served as a member of its faculty. Previously, Bill…
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