Use these 4 questions to help you think through ethics issues

February 6, 2019
Category: Ethics & Trust

A few years ago, I went to my first IRE conference. In addition to being intimidated by all the smart investigative journalists there (and a bit concerned about the 110-degree temps in Phoenix,)  I was also freaked out about my assignment — to lead a talk on ethics.

I cover local news. I’ve covered ethics. But how on earth was I going to talk about them with any kind of authority? My colleague Kelly McBride, whom I was filling in for, spent time helping me get ready. She reassured me that I didn’t have to be the High Priestess of Righteousness. And she taught me that, in a lot of cases, thinking through ethics isn’t an easy yes-and-no, black-and-white process.

She shared four questions that I used in that IRE session:

  1. What do I know, and what do I need to know?

  2. What’s my journalistic purpose?

  3. What are at least three alternatives?

  4. Which alternative best serves my journalistic purpose?

I considered that session off-the-record, so I’m not going to share any examples, but I did see people start to figure their situations out, particularly when they got to No. 3.

Last year, I started to hear versions of those questions in how journalists figure out how to say no. I cribbed from Kelly and cut the list down to three.

  1. What direction are you getting from your editor?

  2. What is your mission as a journalist?

  3. What are some alternatives to saying no?

Learning that process, and then applying it, helped me feel empowered to think beyond the basic (but still critically important) ethics I learned as a high school journalist. So I adopted that process for other things journalists are facing now, including trying to do more with less.

I’m telling you all this because today, Poynter announced a $5 million gift from Craig Newmark Philanthropies to create the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership, which Kelly will lead. (The Columbia Journalism School also benefited, getting a $10 million gift to start the Craig Newmark Center for Journalism Ethics and Security.)

Here at Poynter, we’ll have an ethics fellow, beat coverage of ethics, a newsletter and more — and it’s work everyone here will continue to be part of. I gathered up some examples of this kind of guidance from our archives and included it below.

Like figuring out what habits/stories/projects/products to eliminate as newsrooms shrink and demands grow, navigating journalism ethics is particularly critical to local newsrooms. How do you handle relationships with funders? When (if ever) is it OK to delete a story? And how on earth can you stay safe and sane on the internet?

I’d love to hear what topics you’d like us to cover. Reply and I’ll share them with my colleagues. Here’s an abridged edition of some of Poynter’s ethics work so far that seems most useful to local journalists:

Ethics codes

In 2017, we rewrote our own ethics policy. That was messy, but also very necessary. When was the last time your newsroom revised its ethics policy? Here’s SPJ’s Code of Ethics. Also, check out ONA’s “Build Your Own Ethics Code.”

Covering sexual assault

Here are 10 questions to consider before naming a possible sexual assault victim. Which sexual harassment and assault stories should you cover? Here are some guidelines.

Navigating off-the-record conversations

Why should you avoid off-the-record interviews? How and when do you break your off-the-record promises? And is your story significant enough that you’re willing to spend six months in jail?

Covering mass shootings

Here are some best practices for reaching victims and witnesses to trauma and for reaching people through social media. And here are best practices for covering mass shootings.

Staying safe while doing your job

These fall pretty firmly under the leadership category, but if you’re a newsroom manager, it’s your responsibility to keep your staff safe, too. Here’s safety advice from four pros. And it’s time for newsrooms to reevaluate their security measures.

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter following the digital transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can subscribe here