This is one part of our two-part ethics policy, updated in 2022. This portion dictates how we execute journalism. The other portion, which dictates how we act as journalists, can be found here. The introduction, guiding principles and acknowledgments for our code of ethics can be found here.
The First Amendment provides potent protection for a free and unfettered press so that journalists can have broad latitude in their constitutional role of informing society and holding accountable public officials and those in power. We rely upon and treasure the freedom to serve our democracy. At the same time, we strive toward journalistic excellence. In the interest of promoting the accuracy and credibility of our reporting, here are best practices for news gathering, broadcasting, and publishing.
Table of Contents
- Access to public meetings
- Audience engagement
- Audio standards
- Children in stories
- Civil disturbances
- Company business
- Complaints, corrections and clarifications
- Confidential sourcing
- Contributors and freelancers
- Crime (victims and arrests)
- Crime (using race appropriately)
- Data journalism
- Digital guidelines
- Following the law while gathering news
- Hate groups
- Hate speech
- Investigative reporting
- Language, rhetoric and discourse
- Paid content
- Press releases
- Sexual harassment
- Sexual orientation vs. gender identity
- Structural inequality
- Undercover reporting
- Underwriting, funders
- Vulnerable people
Access to public meetings, public records and courts
An important aspect of our watchdog role of holding public institutions and officials accountable is to push for government transparency and access to government institutions. If a staff member is shut out of public meetings or hearings, or denied access to government records, we’ll immediately begin a plan to press for access firmly and legally.
There is no formula for dealing with cases such as these. The following suggestions are meant as a guideline rather than an edict. That said, not all allegations are equal. Some are newsworthy, some aren’t. More importantly, some are true, and some aren’t. It’s also critical to remember that there can be two or more sides to every story. That means our judgment is critical. How to proceed?
First, these matters should be discussed between editor(s) and reporter(s), and the discussion can revolve around finding answers to some of these questions. Who’s making the allegation and against whom and why? Does the accuser come from a position of authority or power, or the opposite? A position of power would be someone who is a supervisor or boss of the accuser, or someone who carries authority, such as a mentor (officially or unofficially) or perhaps someone with seniority of some type. Are people less likely to believe the accuser because he or she has no power? Also ask if the allegation involves someone of a race or gender whose perspectives are historically devalued. There is a long history of people of Asian, Black, and Latino descent – especially men of color – being accused of having large sexual appetites (Women of color are often hypersexualized, too) and those stereotypes can sometimes wrongly fuel support for false allegations or wrongly fuel dismissals of allegations. White women historically have been perceived as “pure” and vulnerable to attacks from people of color. One example that comes to mind is that of Amy Cooper, a white woman in 2020 who was recorded in New York’s Central Park making a false allegation to the police against African American birder Christian Cooper (no relation). Not all allegations against people of color are to be automatically believed as false or true. We must make sure we understand the claim in its larger historical context and have strong evidence to substantiate the claim.
When the allegation is newsworthy and involves unequal power relations due to race and gender, consider our approach to reporting it. By emphasizing certain aspects of the allegation that are irrelevant, are we perpetuating stereotypes? Are we re-traumatizing the accuser by questioning their personal history?
We must weigh the importance and credibility of the allegation. Are the allegations important to a large audience or point to a system that affects many people? Are there people in harm’s way if the allegations are not reported? We must consider the form of an allegation. Is it a formal legal charge such as a criminal allegation or civil complaint? That would have much higher newsworthiness than an allegation from a rival who might have much to gain and little to lose if the allegation is reported.
Here are some other questions to ask when considering the newsworthiness of allegations and how to approach them: Do the allegations involve public figures of influence? Is there any evidence, confirmation, or verification to support each allegation, and is the source of the allegation credible? Is this allegation one of many that shows a pattern of abuse of power? If it’s one allegation, there may be some discussion about whether the story is newsworthy. We should consider our own potential biases as we evaluate an allegation. Does race or gender play a hidden role in our evaluation of the source’s credibility? Does the person or organization making the allegation have a bias against the accused, or more generally, against people of that race or gender? (In this case, if a story is produced, attempt to include context.)
Also, we try to avoid reporting “the threat of a lawsuit,” a headline-seeking ploy sometimes used to assert wrongdoing. We can’t forget that a damning allegation – even though later proved false – can seriously harm a person’s reputation, so we will wait for the filing. That means that unless unusual factors are present, the accused should be given ample opportunity to know all the potentially damaging information our journalist is about to report and be given time to respond. If time is running out, we look for proxies who may be able to defend the accused. And we tell the audience about our attempts to contact the subjects including details of the nature (phone, email, etc.) and frequency and duration of the attempts.
Says a wise MPR News editor: Be generous with attribution. Don’t take the work of others without proper attribution. If you are using sentences, facts or research generated by another outlet or a reporter – or any other content that you didn’t report yourself – you need to attribute the source in your work. This includes wire services.
Audience engagement and feedback
We welcome audience engagement and feedback about our work and try to encourage each other to interact with people who want to know more about how we do our jobs. More transparency equals more trust. Deleting comments on our social media platforms should be rare (See entry: Social Media), but, at the discretion of a news leader, we may take them down if they are extremely offensive, contain hate speech, threaten violence, are mainly commercial promotions, or if, in the judgment of editors, they otherwise undermine the healthy, robust dialogue we hope to foster. Engagement should also reach across a variety of communities, particularly those that have a history of being under-covered or poorly covered. That will help build rapport and lead to greater accuracy in cultural and social representations in stories. We should bear the responsibility of reaching out. Even if rebuffed initially, keep trying.
- Disclosure: If a funder or donor to APMG becomes part of a news story, the host must acknowledge that connection to the audience. (The requirement doesn’t apply to underwriters because our financial relationship with underwriters is transparent and shared during broadcast. In addition, the financial transaction with an underwriter – compared with a funder – is not directly connected to our journalism.) Board members donate money to APMG. If they’re in the news, their relationship to APMG should be disclosed.
- Diversity: In broadcasts and podcasts, we incorporate a cross-section of voices and experiences, seeking perspectives across gender, racial, political, religious, and economic difference. We will find a variety of viewpoints even within demographic groups and avoid presenting them as monolithic. Editors try to set reasonable inclusion goals, appropriate to subject matter and regionality. Racial and gender diversity, especially, will be part of our everyday stories and not relegated solely to stories about race and gender. Stories about science, technology, business, or land use policies, for instance, should include women and people of color as experts. Further, as appropriate, our journalists widen the definition of “expert” to include lived experience. As another example, stories about an increase in gas prices or a shortage of household items should reflect the diversity of the community at large. Take the time to explore the differing effects that news events may have on various communities. News leaders should require regular audits. In addition, news leaders should diversify the teams behind the microphones. APMG journalists should be willing to include a variety of dialects in their sound, not just the dialects of dominant groups in the region.
- Internal edits: Internal edits have long been prohibited for the U.S. president and former presidents. Internal pauses should be respected and included. Other public figures should be judged by local newsrooms. Internal edits for other sources are OK if the cuts are made for clarity and the context or meaning is not changed. Questions and answers should not be de-coupled in a way that alters context or undermines our transparency.
- Music: Scoring in our stories should be used appropriately but never used to endorse a point of view. Music should never be manipulative – for example, signaling that a sad moment is imminent. Long, light features can benefit from scoring to break up ideas and segments if the music is contextual. Music between segments should follow the same guideline. In all podcasts, scoring should be used judiciously and with editorial purpose.
- Profanity, indecency and obscenity (radio): Broadcasts should follow the FCC guidelines on profanity, indecency, and obscenity. Potentially offensive words should be considered within the context of the broadcast and in consultation with news leaders. If potentially offensive language is deemed by a news leader to be appropriate, we will include an advisory to the audience in the host intro. When APMG distributes a show that contains potentially offensive language – or language that’s been bleeped – we should alert our stations.
- Profanity (podcasts): FCC guidelines do not apply to podcasts. Podcast hosts, producers and/or editors should determine what the acceptable standard is for listeners. A language advisory will be considered. Podcast excerpts for broadcast promotion should not contain any offensive language.
- Profanity (news): Occasionally, offensive language becomes part of a news story. In those cases, while local standards should be considered, the public’s overwhelming need to know will typically supersede those standards.
- Sound (broadcast): Sound effects in news stories must be contextual. Generic sounds may be used if there’s no implication they were recorded in the field.
- Sound (podcast): Sound effects can be used with fewer restrictions.
Providing balance in a story requires exploring a variety of perspectives and viewpoints. Rather than focus on opposite extremes, we delve into the gray area in between. We also avoid false equivalencies because not all information – claims – should be weighted the same. A simple example of this is climate change. While a few scientists may argue that climate change is not a man-made phenomenon, 99 percent agree that it is. It is appropriate and necessary to clarify for audiences that not all information is equal. Balance also means addressing power imbalances.
For example, audiences may give more credence to prominent people, particularly if they are white men in powerful positions. When the NCAA argued that student athletes should not be compensated for playing, even though the institution made millions off those players, that was a great opportunity to explore the power imbalance. The Supreme Court ultimately decided such an imbalance was wrong. APMG journalists must provide balance through their reporting with legitimate and competing claims to contextualize the official version of events.
We are conscious of the ways our own reporting may contribute to stereotyping and bias. When developing coverage priorities and story ideas, we pay attention when the weight of our coverage seems to give a distorted picture based on race, gender, and other identity groups. We also recognize how easily our own blind spots and assumptions can undermine accuracy and fairness.
Journalism requires speed and efficiency, and we often find ourselves in high-stress, high-stakes situations. In such circumstances, our automatic associations and attitudes come to the fore, no matter who we are. Even when we hold consciously anti-racist and anti-sexist attitudes, we can easily slip into subtle ways of thinking that undermine our egalitarian values. We may automatically think about and describe people like ourselves more favorably, compared to those we perceive as different in some way. In a dispute, we may subtly tilt the story in their favor. For instance, do we use compassionate language to describe white people who get into trouble financially or addicted to drugs, but describe people of color as irresponsible, hopeless, or irredeemably criminal? Similarly, we may characterize the positive actions of a favored group as innate, but identical actions by others as temporary.
To protect ourselves and our stories from implicit bias, we look for similarities between ourselves and those we cover. We seize opportunities to listen and learn from people who do not share our own background or identity through everyday interactions, engaging with their cultures and learning their histories. We seek examples of leadership and success beyond those to which our upbringing might most easily lead us.
Children in stories
When seeking an interview with a minor, special care must be taken. We need to balance their ability to speak for themselves – and understand the impact of speaking to a reporter – with possible consequences to them for talking to us. There are many cases in which speaking to a reporter is innocuous – for example, a 15-year-old’s opinion on whether a skateboard park should be built. However, a story about secretly vaping in school might bring some risk to the minor who spoke to us on tape. A story about opioid use among teens would bring even higher risk. In both these cases, our journalists need to have a careful conversation with a news leader about whether to use the teen’s name, especially without parental permission.
At all times we can record a scene that includes the voices of unidentifiable minors. In breaking news situations where the minor is essential to telling the story, parental permission is ideal but not required, as long the top news leader is involved in the decision. We don’t, however, identify minor victims, perpetrators or witnesses of crime or abuse, absent exceptional circumstances, and only with the approval of the top news leader. When there is a risk that a child could be harmed by the story – presently or in the future – an editor should consider confidentiality.
Situations where the child voluntarily speaks on the public record – i.e., in a legislative hearing or a school board meeting – the rules change: Children should be quoted by full name, unless they’re testifying under condition of anonymity.
In school settings, obtaining the written consent of a parent to interview a child may be advisable, but we do not require it. For instance, in a classroom setting where a family has signed a school district media release form, the verbal consent of a responsible adult can be considered sufficient. That said, we maintain that an additional call to a parent is often a good idea.
Civil disturbances (coverage)Civil disturbances, due to their shifting and potentially volatile nature, should be covered with special attention to accuracy and fairness. We should recognize the various power relations at play and corroborate official counts and reports about the course of events through eye-witness reporting, when possible, and interviews with multiple stakeholders.
To capture the entire scope, aim to include protesters, law enforcement, supporters, counter- protesters, and those on the sidelines. Be aware of what a photo, for example, communicates, and what it leaves out. What happened before and after the photo was shot? If any part of the protest involves violence or other law-breaking, make an extra effort to determine who or what group is involved, including their estimated number, without relying solely on law enforcement authorities, protest organizers, or any other single source. Evaluate who is part of the protest and who may be a provocateur. If protests involve hate speech or promote acts of violence, show what’s happening while also bearing in mind and resisting protesters’ desire to use news media to amplify their message.
When race is a focus of the civil disturbance, carefully decide whether to describe someone’s race is relevant to the story. Consider your own assumptions and those of your audience before naming race. Does it help illuminate this person’s perspective, enabling deeper understanding across groups, or does it promote social stereotypes? If we feel any part of a person’s identity is relevant to the story, we don’t guess what it is. We ask. (See entry: Race: When to name it.)
Civil disturbances (safety)
Journalists should take care not to get in the way of law enforcement, security, medical or rescue operations. In all cases where it is safe to do so, our journalists try to keep press credentials on display. Staff is expected to know the law and follow the law. We try to anticipate problematic situations and seek advice from a news leader and an APMG attorney in advance. If we are covering a situation where there is a chance of arrest, editors are to be alerted, and the journalists should have contact information for their editor, the head of news and APMG attorneys. In a situation that has the potential of becoming dangerous and where having multiple journalists present can improve safety, our news organizations try to send a team of journalists rather than one person. Everyone assigned should have safety gear. We should assume that LGBTQ+ journalists and journalists of color may be targeted by protesters and law enforcement and face higher risks, and we should plan accordingly. That said, cautions should not preclude LGBTQ+ journalists and journalists of color from being assigned. News leaders need to be sure all staff involved in the coverage are aware of legal rules and protocols and have the support of the company.
Company business that crosses into our work
APMG and its organizations depend in part on underwriting, donors, foundations and other revenue to pay for our journalism. Those business relationships should not and do not affect our journalism. A strong, consistent firewall between our news operations and our business operations strengthens audience trust in APMG’s journalism. (See entries: Appearances for the underwriting and development departments; also, Funders.)
Complaints, corrections and clarifications
When someone says we’ve made a correctable error in any piece of content, a senior news leader needs to be informed. We strive to check the claim as soon as possible and, in cases where an error did occur, a subsequent correction is produced and broadcast in a similar air spot or at the bottom of a digital story page. An editor is required to approve the correction. If the complaint is unsupported, a newsroom staffer needs to relay that to the person who claimed an error occurred. Our journalists are obligated to tell editors if they’ve made an error or if they know of an error.
Clarifications should be used primarily when our work has introduced confusion or ambiguity into a key part of a story, or if we’ve failed to include an opposing point of view that is relevant. If a story is badly flawed, it may require an editor’s note. If serious or repeated complaints about one of our journalists arises, we want that information relayed to the head of news for further investigation.
Unnamed sources are permitted, but we try to use them rarely and as a last resort, with awareness that the use of unnamed sources can diminish our credibility and weaken our stories. Generally, audiences and readers deserve to know precisely who is speaking and from whom our journalists have gotten information. It’s a matter of trust, credibility and transparency.
Our journalists need to be insistent with sources that they talk to us on the record. At times, though, the person requesting confidentiality is the only one from whom we can get the pertinent information, and the importance of that information outweighs other considerations. Sometimes a source may fear some type of retribution for talking to us. Absent certain circumstances, reporters try to include an editor in the decision to allow confidentiality. An editor and the head of news will need to know the name of any confidential source.
If a confidential source is used, audiences should be told why we’ve allowed someone to be unnamed and, if possible, the bona fides of the unnamed person should be included. (i.e. “…a senior official in the governor’s office who’s worked on the legislation,” provided such information is consistent with the terms of any confidentiality promise.) Also, we try to be precise about the number of confidential sources and avoid “…some people say,” by instead using, as an example, “…according to three people.” Under no circumstances do we allow personal attacks by someone unnamed in our reporting. In most circumstances, information from unnamed sources needs to be corroborated by a second credible person, document, tape, or video that is independent of the original source.
Contributors and freelancers
Freelancers (contractors) and contributors will be held to the same journalistic standards as staff. We require outside journalists to read and sign off on these guidelines. Assigning editors are responsible for vetting freelancers. This vetting should include a review of previous work, public posts, and social media accounts. Editors will ask freelancers and contributors if there are any potential conflicts before they assign a story and will reference this document. (See entry: Conflict of interest in Standards of Behavior.)
Crime (victims and arrests)
We don’t typically name someone who has been arrested until they are charged with a crime. There are exceptions, however, which can include prominent people, elected public officials, major breakthroughs on high-profile cases and threats to public safety. We’ll not name sexual assault victims unless they ask to be identified. We do not typically name juvenile suspects, even after they’ve been charged in juvenile court. If they are charged as an adult, naming the minor should be decided on a case-by-case basis. We won’t use unnecessary details about a criminal suspect (i.e., race, sexual orientation, housing status). When we report the criminal history of a suspect, we’ll strive to report beyond the charges and detail what happened. Often law enforcement will use shorthand to embellish the crimes in a suspect’s past. We make time to report and find the details behind the charges. When we name a suspect, we strive to use the first and any middle name in the first reference.
We are cautious about potential manipulation by any of our sources – the police or community members. We avoid riding along during raids, though if we do, we’ll provide context beyond the incident. When possible, we take the time to talk to nearby residents, who may offer important background and perspective beyond police perceptions. We also delve into community history and context that can reveal power dynamics between the police and those they are policing.
Crime (using race appropriately)
We are thoughtful about naming race in crime stories. Ask: If I use race in a description of a suspect at large, will it help the audience recognize who the person is? Or will it cast a whole group under suspicion? How likely is the racial category to be accurate? Other descriptors like the clothes the person is wearing, usually are more helpful. Race can be inaccurate, given that there are diverse skin types and hues within each racial category, and that visual identification can be inaccurate. Another test: Substitute “white” as the race. Does the description remain helpful when we mention that the accused is white? However, in some cases, such as hate crimes, the race of both the suspect and the victim are important. We should identify the race of each with as much accuracy as possible, but don’t describe the race of the suspect, for example, and not the race of the victim. We don’t describe either if race is irrelevant to the crime.
There are several scenarios that may call for race to be included in the story:
- When there is a racial element to the crime.
- When it helps illuminate a debate underway about policing patterns and behaviors, in which case we should call attention to that pattern.
- When the focus of the story is patterns of arrests and charges, or relationships between the police and the community.
We can use the same guide when deciding whether to report the race of a law enforcement officer. Was implicit bias a factor? Implicit bias involves automatic associations, and a common automatic association is that Black men with weapons are a threat. Ask if there is a pattern of behavior from the police unit or officer, in which case race may be a factor. If mentioning the race of the officer is warranted, then we must also mention the race of the person or people who have interacted with the officer. A case in St. Louis involved police shooting a Black off-duty officer. The reason the on-duty officer gave for shooting the Black off-duty officer was that he “feared for his life.” In this case implicit bias appeared at work and the race of the shooting officer and the race of the off-duty officer should be mentioned, even if both are of the same race. Not only white people make these associations. However, it wouldn’t make sense to mention race if both officers were white. In that case, implicit bias would not be a factor.
However, given the times we’re in, reporting the race of both people in a police shooting could simply be answering a salient question in a news story.
Whenever race is a subtext to the story, we will consider questions about the interplay between stereotypes and criminality and be mindful of our own implicit bias as we shape a story.
We love data. When used properly, it lets us accurately report important conclusions and show comparisons. Data can come from public and private sources. However, any data can be flawed, misleading or incomplete. First, we find out if it’s up to date. We look for anomalies and anything else that might raise suspicion about its validity. We try to understand the methodology of the data gathering (i.e., “FBI crime data is gathered by law enforcement jurisdictions nationwide submitting statistics”). It might raise questions, especially if the data comes from an advocacy group. Often advocacy groups will tabulate or summarize data from other sources. If possible, we ask for the source of their data, and use the values from the original source. We try to compare the data with another source of similar information and remain wary of data or research funded by an industry about itself or an advocacy group with an agenda. If we choose to report it for some reason, we tell the audience who paid for it.
We are skeptical of data leaked only to us because we may be constrained in what we can find out about the data – for example, its authenticity. We will check with our legal team before using leaked or hacked data because it may involve serious legal concerns. It also may contain private information that’s irrelevant, in which case we’ll redact with care. When we produce our own data and analysis, we tell the audience the source of the original data and the methodology we used to arrive at our conclusions.
We check our data to be sure it includes cuts for race and gender. If it doesn’t, we ask for them. For example, COVID-19 had a significant impact on Blacks and Latinos, yet this would not have been known if reporters had not asked state and federal agencies for this data. Yes, disaggregated data is helpful in showing disparate outcomes, but don’t stop there. Stories simply describing unequal outcomes leave audiences to fill in the blanks with ideas about personal responsibility, cultural deficits, and social stereotypes.
Going back to the example of COVID-19, many reported the health disparity without fully examining its root causes. Some of those structural causes were: Many people of color had jobs in which they could not isolate and work from home; others lived in crowded conditions because they didn’t have access to affordable housing; many had to rely on public transportation to get to and from work because they didn’t have a car; some didn’t have access to healthcare or had experienced bias in the system. Each of these structures were important to explore. Use data to uncover systems and structures that lead to disparate outcomes. Understand the social conditions, institutional and historical influences, and policies and practices that help shape those outcomes. Explore the disparate impact of policies on various communities, and policies that may fail to address specific issues. In our explanation of disparate outcomes, we focus on who gains, not just who loses. We don’t rely on cultural behaviors and genetic inheritance as explanations for disparity.
- Breaking news: We tell readers that the event is fluid and we’re working to confirm facts and gather information. As a result, we may not have a complete story. We try to explain: “This is a developing story, and we are doing our best to bring you accurate information, but reports may change. We’re verifying facts as quickly as possible and will continue to update this article.” When we post video from social media, we will include the following language: “This is raw video, and we’re working to independently verify its contents.” Also, we’ll consider an advisory if the video is potentially offensive or disturbing and, when in doubt, raise this issue with a news leader.
- Children in photos: In some cases, we need to get written permission from the parent of a minor to publish a child’s photo with a news story or a planned feature story, especially if it’s sensitive. We get children’s and parents’ full names whenever possible, but we’ll take guidance from parents on whether we publish the full name of the child. Of course, publishing a feature photograph of a gaggle of children seeking a baseball player’s autograph on Opening Day doesn’t require special treatment. Point is, we consider the place and the tone of the photo.
- Embedding (documents): Embedding is often the right thing to do, but a link may suffice. Often, the best choice is to upload the document or link to it in the story. We will never embed or link to a document without reading it first. We might choose to embed documents to support the credibility of our reporting. If we embed documents, we redact personal information such as SSN, addresses, phone number, email or other personal information. We also watch for victims’ names or other details that might identify people where it is contrary to these guidelines. News leaders will determine what material should be removed, how to go about it and how to tell readers what we’ve done. We remain aware that, in some situations, embedding and even linking to a document can raise copyright infringement concerns.
- Graphic content: It seems that we regularly must decide whether to use graphic videos or photos. Graphic material can include violence, cruelty, criminal activity, abusive language, hate speech or sexual material. There are no absolute rules governing the publication of graphic material. The questions below are meant to guide the decision-making process:
- Are we confident that the material is necessary to show to understand the story?
- Are we confident that we know who recorded the material?
- Are we comfortable with the submitter’s intentions in giving us the video or image?
- Are we confident that it is authentic?
- Are we comfortable with any editing that has been done before we received it?
- Are we confident that we have permission to re-publish the material?
If the answer to any of these is no, then we need to address those issues first. When the answer to these is yes, we can move forward and consider questions such as: What journalistic purpose does it serve? Might it cause harm and, if so, what is the nature of the harm, who might be hurt, and does the news value outweigh potential harm? Should we do additional reporting? Can we do anything with the material that adds value, not just republishes material widely available? With graphic video, include a first warning slide that the material may be offensive to some viewers. It is almost always helpful to raise concerns in advance with a news leader and to engage others in a dialogue to reach a consensus regarding difficult decisions about graphic content.
- Captions: We write clear and honest captions that identify people in the image and add context or clarity. We are aware of words that undermine impartiality, promote bias or bolster stereotypes. For example, during Hurricane Katrina, captions describing a white couple carrying food described them as “finding” it, while in a separate image, a Black person also carrying provisions was described as “looting.”
- Juxtapositions: We’re aware that illustrating a story with a photo of someone unrelated to the story can be misleading and raise accuracy, fairness and, in some cases, defamation concerns. For example, illustrating a story about addiction with a photo of some people drinking coffee outside of a methadone clinic could create a false impression that the people depicted are heroin addicts. We recognize the importance of including LGBTQ+ people and people of color in everyday situations, and we guard against reinforcing gender, religious and racial stereotypes in our photo choices. We recognize the damage journalists have caused historically by visually linking ethnic minorities and immigrants primarily to crime, health disparities, sports, entertainment, and few other topics, and by visually prioritizing white men as experts and authorities. We are careful about using photos in ways that might be misleading.
- Permission: Use of a photo taken by someone else that isn’t licensed for our use or in the public domain raises copyright infringement concerns. If a story is about a photo, then the “fair use defense” may justify use of the photo. It bears repeating that fair use is a narrow defense, and not a right. Generally, we must get permission from the creator of the image or the copyright holder to use it. We try to get permission via email so that we have a record of it. When in doubt, consult with an APMG attorney.
- Photo credit: It’s important that we provide photo credits to any outside photographers or news organizations who have taken photos used with our stories, so it never appears that we are taking credit for someone else’s work. Not to do so is a form of plagiarism.
- Privacy: Photos can raise privacy concerns, depending on where they were taken and the subject matter. The very act of taking a photo can violate someone’s privacy if the photo is taken in a private place without permission. Ethical and legal issues around privacy and photos can be complex. It’s important to be aware of those considerations and to raise questions with news leaders and an APMG attorney before publishing.
- Submitted: People or organizations can submit a photo, but we must always check that they own the right to copy the images. Always ask the source of the images. If they don’t know, we can’t use it. Be sure to get both caption and credit information. We do occasionally buy photos.
- Truthfulness: Our photographs must depict scenes and people accurately, honestly and without bias. We check images for situations and context that may reflect our implicit bias or lean on social stereotypes. We recognize that our choices may have a lasting impact on the person portrayed, especially in high-profile cases, and become part of the ongoing social narrative about the community involved. We’ll enhance photos only for technical clarity. We do not stage scenes to make them fit a story line. When we use dated photos with a current story, we must say so in the caption.
- Verification: We do the same kind of journalistic work on photos that we do on any other handout material. Are we confident it is accurate? Do we know when and where it was taken? That the source is accurate? That the caption is accurate?
- Profanity, indecency and obscenity: Our digital platforms are somewhat more relaxed than the radio when it comes to tolerance for obscenity, indecency, or profanity. No matter, we allow obscenity, indecency or profanity only when we judge that it’s essential to the context of a story. Even then, the editor/producer must carefully consider what is an acceptable standard for the market, show or time of day. (See entry: Audio Standards for a more complete discussion of this issue.)
- Removal of content: We do not remove our journalism from our digital platforms except in extreme cases. Only the head of news can make this decision and it’s recommended that it come along with an editor’s note explaining the decision.
- User-generated content: User-generated content (UGC) can be an important part of the reporting process. We must verify any user-generated content before we use, share or report on it. Not only do we need to authenticate it, but we also need to be sure it’s the sender’s content to share or, if not, that we have permission from the copyright owner. Photos, music, and video clips shared by a user may well be copyright protected and use of that content could constitute copyright infringement. We will attribute all user-generated content we publish or share. However, attribution does not avoid a copyright problem, and, in many cases, we’ll try to seek advance permission from the content creator or copyright owner. There are times when we might publish newsworthy UGC content once it is verified, even without explicit permission from the author, after consulting with the APMG attorney. We do not use, share, or report on UGC that contains hate speech, implicitly promotes violence, or contains misinformation, unless the producer is newsworthy. (See entry: Hate speech.)
In the event of an ongoing disaster, journalists must keep a safe distance and bring the appropriate safety gear into the field. Journalists should take care not to interfere with any law enforcement, security, emergency responder, medical or rescue operations. Our journalists clearly identify themselves as journalists and should not pressure people who have been affected into doing interviews. We recognize that people are experiencing trauma and we weigh the benefit of an interview against the potential harm, especially for people who are already part of a vulnerable community, such as immigrants.
In our reporting, we cover unfolding events and try to look beyond individual tragedy to report on any policies and practices that magnify harm to some groups over others and may even have laid the groundwork for the disaster itself. Similarly, we consider the advantages that give some communities more resilience than others in the face of disaster, including the power relations that may enable better access to resources. We check our own economic and racial bias when reporting on people’s responses to a disaster. Ask: Are we taking into account the social and economic conditions that constrain and/or enable people’s choices to overlook evacuation or shutdown orders, their ability to gather or save provisions, or the consequences they may face?
Finally, our journalists should be aware of a troubling trend: the increasing use of disasters to spread misinformation and distrust. An example: Instead of evacuating in the face of raging wildfires, residents of an Oregon community set up checkpoints, roadblocks, and patrols because a Facebook post said that anti-fascist activists were on the prowl. The lesson here is to only share information we have independently confirmed or comes from official sources.
Disinformation and misinformation
“Disinformation” refers to intentional attempts to spread false and misleading information, while “misinformation” refers to the unintentional sharing of falsehoods. Both have the potential to undermine our journalism. For example, hundreds of deceptive “news” sites attempt to promote a particular ideology, usually by adding misleading context or dubious claims to snippets of genuine news reports or facts. Foreign governments also have attempted to manipulate public perceptions, undermine voter confidence and sow division through false social media accounts. The result is a public in part wary of all information, and in part willingly accepting of conspiracy theories and disinformation about, for example, Black Lives Matter, the 2020 U.S. election, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The forms and pathways of disinformation constantly change. APMG journalists carefully evaluate information we find online before reporting it. To strengthen your skills, review the tools offered by First Draft News.
When we report on either disinformation or misinformation, we are careful to avoid unwittingly amplifying it. Often, this is the bad actors’ goal. We can start with questions about newsworthiness – how far has the image, text or audio spread already? If it’s new, it’s more risky to spread. What is our source? Is there an attempt to lure news media into becoming a tool for amplification? Joan Donovan’s “Source Hacking: Media Manipulation In Practice” offers good examples and recommendations to avoid getting trapped. Consider why we think the information is worth reporting. To educate the public? To show that prominent people are involved? What are the consequences of paying attention to the falsehood?
If we decide to report on people taken in by the misinformation, we use empathy, not ridicule. We do not repeat manipulated audio, although there may be cases in which we choose to show manipulated video, text or images in order to debunk them. In those cases, it’s most effective to show side-by-side visuals, with prominent graphics or a text overlay to clearly call out the original and the manipulation. If a public figure makes a false statement, whether deliberate or not, we use the “truth sandwich” technique recommended by linguist George Lakoff: We state the fact, describe the nature of the falsehood, then repeat the fact in context. When a false claim is made about COVID-19 vaccines, for instance, first surround the false claim with a summary of the genuine situation and then a debunking of the falsehood. It’s best to characterize the claim rather than to repeat it, because repetition confers a ring of truth over time.
We’ll accept embargoed information, but it shouldn’t be routine. We want a solid reason for taking the information early. For example, it may be complicated research that will require more than one day to get right. Or the information may include a key fact that will significantly affect how we plan story coverage. That said, by accepting the terms of the embargo, our news organization moves into an uncomfortable spot: We’re sitting on information the audience may want or need to know. That’s why it’s important that staff members have a clear understanding of the terms of the embargo. For example, can we report “around” the information before broadcasting? If an organization sends us information that it wants embargoed – without a prior conversation with us – we aren’t obligated to comply. And if a source’s requests for embargoes are consistently ignored by other news organizations, it doesn’t make sense to agree. Before accepting an embargo, consult with a news leader.
Never embellish or exaggerate in news reporting. Quotes should never be pumped up or enlivened. Any archived tape should be identified as such. Descriptions should never be made to seem more vivid than the actual scene as it took place. Of course, never fabricate. Be a stickler for accuracy.
This is a broad topic that can’t possibly cover every situation, yet it’s a critical characteristic of a high-road newsroom. It must be top of mind, and we try to constantly ask ourselves: “Are we being fair?” Fairness means that we’ve done everything within reason to be sure that the subjects of our journalism aren’t surprised by the central points of our story and have a chance to respond. It should be a basic step in our process. For example, are we being fair by calling a subject of a critical story one hour before broadcast although we’ve been working on the story for two weeks? Are we being fair by omitting important context and facts from a story because it might diminish our premise? Are we being fair by broadcasting unguarded moments with an interview subject unaccustomed to being the subject of news coverage or other publicity after he or she thought the interview ended but our journalist was still rolling tape? Are we being fair to marginalized communities when we generalize across entire populations or perpetuate problematic narratives about them? Are we being fair reporting – without context via an unverified social media post – that the subject of our story is distantly associated a known criminal? The answer to all these questions is no.
For emphasis: It’s our job to seek a response from a person, organization or a company attacked or criticized in any form. We try to watch the use of words that reflect a point of view, such as “refused,” “despite,” and “quietly.” We avoid charged language and coded words that can demonize groups of people. In our use of anecdotes and storytelling, we include historical and sociocultural context instead of allowing personal responsibility to become an explanation for larger societal problems. For example, when a story about the increase in diabetes among Black children during the pandemic cites only obesity, poor diet, and a lack of exercise as root causes, audiences are likely to assume that bad parenting is at fault. A more responsible story would incorporate the higher impact of COVID-19 within the Black community and trace its effect on disease-related factors such as sleeplessness due to stress, loneliness, and access to and availability of healthy foods. Over time, if we practice unfair journalism, we risk losing the trust of the audience.
Following the law while gathering news
While journalists have a great deal of legal protection around publication, the First Amendment provides little protection when journalists break laws while gathering news. We cannot trespass, violate recording laws, break agreements with sources, steal or otherwise act illegally to obtain information, break into another’s voicemail or email, or propose that anyone else illegally obtain information on our behalf. If our journalists are concerned, they might violate the law, they need to consult with a news leader.
APMG journalists understand that the cisgender male perspective is the invisible default in our society and challenge this in our thinking. We report stories through the varying lenses of men, women, and nonbinary people. Even in stories with no obvious gender gap in perspective, we consider how gender may offer a new way of looking at them. We examine how policies may affect women and other gender categories differently than men. For example, Social Security is based on income over time. Because of the pay differentials between men and women and because women often take time away from work to care for family, they are more likely to receive lower benefits.
We acknowledge the privilege we may carry while reporting, and approach stories with humility, clear that we may not know or understand the perspective of all our sources. Gender identity is not the same as gender expression, so it’s important that we not make assumptions. Nonbinary people are often self-aware and tell us the pronouns they prefer, but we ask when we are unsure. If we are using plural pronouns for an individual, we briefly explain why with a simple line such as, “Julie uses the pronoun ‘they.’” There is no need to explain a person’s gender identity further unless the story is about that subject. The same rules apply to transgender sources or subjects.
We may identify them as a transgender person if the story highlights transgender issues or perspectives, otherwise, transgender identity is irrelevant, and we use the name and the appropriate pronoun as with any story. (See entry: Sexual orientation vs. gender identity.)
Hate groups, long active in the U.S., have emerged from the shadows once again and become highly visible, provoking acts of violence and demanding attention at rallies and protests. APMG journalists are thoughtful in our coverage of their activities and claims, recognizing that such groups often use the news media to amplify their message. We’ll carefully determine the news value of a group’s actions to avoid doing public harm by giving it a platform. When we do decide to report a story, we avoid becoming unwitting accomplices.
We do not: 1) link to the hate group’s website or coverage of their activities by their allies, 2) publish or air interviews with white supremacists or other hate group leaders except in rare cases, approved by news leaders; 3) publish or use a perpetrator’s name more than once, and we never use it in a headline or tease. We do: 1) in rare cases, approved by news leaders, conduct interviews with hate group leaders; 2) paraphrase rather than use direct quotes or actualities to avoid broadcasting code words, 3) dig into funding, technology, and other supports for hate groups; 4) protect our safety by recording interviews and keeping our digital personal lives private, also encouraging our families to do so.
Dealing with hate speech is one of the thorniest ethical issues we face, in part because we work in a profession that prides itself on promoting free speech. APMG journalists sometimes must make an ethical call about whether to quote hate speech or calls for violence. Newsroom leaders should always be included in these conversations. When we’ve decided to include hate speech in a report, we nearly always paraphrase or describe it rather than quote it verbatim. In making the decision and in our reporting, we strive for context. Is the speaker openly racist, transphobic, or misogynistic, for example, or are they repeating a meme or disinformation that’s gone viral?
Consider how hate speech sustains and supports race or gender power relations that are currently in place, subjugating or disadvantaging groups of people. What is the harm done to the target group through repetition of the phrase?
For example, when white nationalists in 2017 chanted “Jews will not replace us,” at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the slogan was newsworthy because it tied them to organized neo-Nazis and theories about white genocide. It was not a direct slur like other chants at the rally, which would have extended the harm but added little to the listener’s understanding. We repeat slurs only rarely, such as when they are used by public figures in noteworthy situations. For example, when former President Donald Trump in 2018 referred to immigrants from “shithole countries” in a meeting with lawmakers, the phrase was newsworthy because it revealed that racism was shaping his policy stance.
If someone is repeating a falsehood or conspiracy theory, how newsworthy is their speech? Does the individual seem representative of a broader group? Do they demonstrate in some way why that group is vulnerable or how widely a hateful belief system has taken hold?
If you decide to characterize a falsehood contained in hate speech, consider using the “truth sandwich” approach around the hate speech. State a truth that counteracts the hate speech, then follow the hate speech with a related truth. (See entry: Disinformation and misinformation.)
Keep in mind that hate speech you repeat may very well be amplified on social media and can also be digitally manipulated and distributed to support positions of hate. (See entry: Hate groups.)
News hosts must follow the same guidelines as all newsroom staffers, but particularly in their use of social media, an unbound channel that can encourage point of view, conflict, and snark. In fact, because hosts are our highest-profile representatives of our newsgathering, they must be exceedingly aware of their behavior and take care with possible perceptions by our audiences.
When asking people to self-identify, we are aware that identity is multifaceted and can also be situational. In certain instances, parts of someone’s identity may be in greater play. For example, women in general may experience poor treatment and pay in the workplace. Race may also play a role. Perhaps women of color are at an even greater disadvantage. Be sure to explore all possibilities. The intersection of one or more identities may be the most important element to notice in a story. Use this awareness to ask better questions and frame the story.
- Previewing questions: Our journalists should not tell interview subjects the questions they plan to ask. We want natural, conversational responses, not canned answers. They can share general topics, and certainly the reason for the interview request. Emailed questions should only be used as a last resort with a reluctant source.
- Ground rules: Before the interview begins, we should be clear if there are any ground rules (for example, the source may have insisted that the interview be off the record) and confirm the condition at the end of the conversation. Remember that confidential sources may only be used under certain circumstances. If a person critical to our story doesn’t appear in the story, tell the audience why – for example, “…Smith didn’t return calls and emails” … “…Smith wouldn’t agree to an interview.” (See entry: Confidential sourcing.)
- Paying or negotiating with a source about an interview: We don’t pay for interviews. We also don’t bargain dayparts, hosts, or story angles in exchange for access to a newsmaker.
- Quote approval: We don’t permit “quote approval” by sources as a condition of an interview. We also don’t read back quotes to sources or allow do-overs. If we have a question about the meaning of a quote, we ask the source for clarification. Separately, if a staff member has interviewed someone who won’t be included in the story, it’s a courtesy to tell them, though we’re not obligated.
- Rolling tape: Often we record before and after an interview has started. In cases where we want to use that tape and where sources are unaccustomed to publicity or dealing with media, as a matter of consideration, our journalists are expected to ask such sources for approval. Why? Because the source may not have known the pre-interview or post-interview chat was being recorded. There are some instances when the only audio available to the journalist is asking for comment – for example, a door knock on the house of a reluctant source. In those cases, audio may be used with an editor’s permission and if it helps the story.
- When stories air: We try never to commit to anyone when or if our stories will air.
- Intercultural interviewing: When interviewing across race, sexual orientation, or other differences, we make an extra effort to make sure we are listening fully and are aware of:
- The habits of listening and interpretation we have collected throughout our lifetimes based on our race, gender, sexuality, disability, citizenship, and other aspects of identity.
- How people may perceive us based on race, gender, or job status, and therefore our questions.
- The need for humility. We commit to listening deeply and fairly while also paying attention to our own potential biases and ignorance on certain topics.
- The unspoken forms of communication and their meaning, including expressions of comfort and discomfort, conviction, and fear.
- More than the facts of the moment. That is, we listen for people telling us what could have been and what may yet be.
There’s nothing inherent about investigative reporting that requires a different interpretation of responsible journalism. In fact, in some instances the bar gets higher because the impact of the story is most likely greater than a typical daily story. For example, because this type of journalism will typically expose wrongdoing or neglect, the targets of the reporting should have sufficient time to see our evidence. Each piece of our evidence will need careful verification.
Always seek a legal review. We need to keep our minds open while reporting so that we don’t appear as an activist or impartial. And we need to abandon our investigation when the facts do not support what we originally thought might be true. We need to carefully consider our targets’ responses and any contrary evidence they produce. We don’t want the subjects of our investigations to be surprised by the gist of what they ultimately read or hear from us. That means we’ve been transparent about supporting information and what we’ve found out.
Language, rhetoric and discourse
Be alert when speech is subtly used to manipulate and influence, or to stereotype groups of people. For example, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement began separating detained families, some officials said the agency primarily did so when a child was in danger. A good reporter would, of course, check how the policy was being implemented. But there is another layer: the power relations tied to U.S. authority, race, and immigration status. Claims
about child endangerment played into stereotypes that people from Central America and Mexico are criminally minded, poor, uneducated and have large, unruly families. Anti-immigration factions emphasized that migrant parents brought their children to the border in a dangerous situation and might even be using them to get asylum. As a result – the subtext went – ICE had to step in, separate, and provide “first world” care to these “neglected” children. We call out such speech so audiences can interpret the subtext. We press for clarity, listening in a way we know that our audiences will. Pay attention to insinuation and ask about it.
The opinions of our journalists have no place in our reporting or interviewing. While it would be foolish to believe journalists don’t have biases and a point of view, their work needs to avoid such things. (Of course, art criticism, fun stories and lists are exceptions.) Word choice, story organization and the exclusion of an opposing view can contribute to a story’s presentation tilting toward the opinion of the journalist. So, too, would an inordinate number of stories that highlight one side of a controversial issue. Our work needs to gain audiences via our formidable fact gathering and context, not point of view. Our audiences must trust that our journalists are approaching stories with an open mind – suspending any beliefs – in the interest of arriving at a truth girded by evidence. It’s important, too, that our hosts don’t use an overly opinionated tone when conducting an interview.
Information published on our websites that was paid for by underwriters, donors or foundations needs to be clearly designated as such, using the labels such as “advertising content” or “underwritten content.” Readers need to know clearly and quickly that it’s not from news staff.
News organizations have been combining forces in various ways for years, and APMG is no exception. Partnerships can expand the reach of our journalism, complement our expertise, and boost our reputation. Before partnering, we want to be sure there’s a clear strategic purpose, because partnerships are hard work and require steady oversight. The terms between APMG and the partner must be crystal clear and typically should undergo legal review. We need to be sure we’re collaborating with a news group that shares our principles and journalism standards.
We don’t take the work of others and present it as our own. We also don’t mislead the audience about the source or timeliness of any information, including data and photos. We try to properly attribute to other news organizations any of their original reporting that lands in our stories. (See entry: Attribution.)
Official statements from government, universities, businesses, or other institutions should be cross-checked – time permitting – just like any source of information. Additionally press releases can rely on stereotypes and communicate implicit bias just as easily as people and poorly crafted news stories do. For instance, one press release about a genetic discovery touted a future in which people could lighten their skin just by taking a pill. Not only was the claim unsupported by the science, it telegraphed the supposed favorability of white skin. A press release describing the benefits of relocating a bus line to serve new housing is unlikely to mention the communities that will lose service. What is the impact when researchers label a community a “hot spot of death” due to high colon cancer rates? Our journalists should assess such claims with skepticism, confirm them with people affected and with experts, recognizing that press releases aim to create a favorable impression of the issuing party and can reflect institutional power relations.
At times, the free flow of information can collide with a person’s expectation of privacy. Before revealing what might be considered private aspects of a person’s life or unnecessary detail about it, journalists need to carefully weigh the news value of the revelation with privacy considerations. There are sometimes boundaries. An average citizen included in a news story deserves more consideration when it comes to privacy issues than celebrities or elected officials, for example. Privacy about sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression should be generally honored, although there may be news value that overrides that guidance – for example, we would report about an elected public official’s private life or a popular religious leader’s private life if it contradicted their publicly expressed policy positions. And of course, their response must be in the story. (See entry: Photos.)
Our journalists may read promotions for the station and promos that encourage public radio membership. (See entry: Coverage of APMG and its businesses.)
We apply racial lenses to our work to understand people’s various lived realities and recognize when actions and outcomes – for example, in health, criminal justice, education and employment statistics – have disparate impact. Race is structured throughout American life and has an influence in every area. When data comes out from an agency, we ask for a breakdown by race. When a public initiative launches, we ask questions to find out how communities of color have been factored and how they will be affected. As we’re developing a story idea, we explore how people across race, class, gender, sexual orientation, generation, geography, and generations may experience the issue or event, and shape our approach accordingly. Whiteness has long operated in its own best interest, and we take steps to understand and contextualize this dynamic.
It’s also a trap, however, to assume that all people of any one race or ethnicity experience news developments in the same way. We avoid implying, for instance, that all Black or brown people support defunding the police. Similarly, we avoid reductive thinking about outcomes when looking through the lens of race. Rather than allow our audiences to fill in their own assumptions about racial differences, we seek to understand the social and neighborhood conditions that shape people’s lives based on race. We report on the interlocking institutional policies, practices and cultures that shape those conditions, and the power structures behind those. We pay attention to coverage – and our habits – that tend to misrepresent people of color primarily as troublesome or overrepresented in sports and entertainment.
Race: When and how to name it
We need to be thoughtful about how and when we name a person’s race in stories. Does it shed light on their perspective? Help the audience understand their experiences? Or, as often in the case of crime suspect stories, does a racial label add little except possible misinformation? In medical reports, are we using race as the inferred biological explanation for health outcomes, rather than exploring the racialized experiences, policies and practices that disparately affect people across populations?
We are cautious about the tendency to blend racial categories with ancestry, nationality, or culture and the tendency to treat nonwhites as not fully American. For example, “Asian” is considered a race, but the term doesn’t capture the varied experiences of people with ancestry in the United States, South Asia, Southeast Asia and/or East Asia. “Latino” does not capture the varied experiences of people with ancestry in the United States and/or Latin America. This large group contains people who have different national origins and who may also identify as Black, white, Asian, or Indigenous. If we can be, we are specific, such as “the daughter of Indian immigrants” or “moved from his native Guatemala to Minnesota as a teenager.” (See entry: Crime – using race appropriately.)
New research can be newsworthy, but we always proceed with caution. We don’t want to appear to authenticate someone else’s incomplete, sloppy or biased research. The most reliable research has been peer reviewed and published – or is about to be published – in well-respected journals, meaning it’s been scrutinized by other experts in the field. Some “studies” – those appearing on an organization’s website, for example – may not have been externally reviewed or may not present clear methodology. That’s a red flag. That said, unpublished research conducted by serious researchers abiding by the scientific process may occasionally be newsworthy if it comes from university centers, government agencies or businesses. Such studies require an additional layer of skepticism.
For example, ask: Who paid for the work? Who’s interested in publicity? Why have the researchers not yet been published in a peer review format? Is that planned? Check with leading experts in the field and ask if they’ve heard of the research or researchers. If not, be cautious and do more vetting. Always be wary of a publicist giving our newsroom first crack at unreviewed research. With any research, ask whether it was funded by parties with an interest in a particular outcome, and ask other experts their opinion on the results.
Use special caution with studies that purport to associate racial, gender or other identities with certain behaviors. Be wary of oversimplified, genetic explanations for social outcomes, including medical ones, and avoid repeating them. When reporting on higher rates of death or disease in a particular group, ask about the role of social and physical conditions, both current and historical, including the institutional policies that shape those conditions. (See entry: Structural inequality.)
No story is more important than the personal safety of our journalists. Editors should know if a reporter is in a dangerous situation or about to go into one. Even with a media identification badge, journalists may be treated no differently than protesters in some situations. Journalists also can be viewed as “authorities” themselves by protesters. We consider whether our presence might – even unintentionally – be inflaming the situation. We try to follow police directives.
Before an assignment that could bring potential danger – especially if the newsroom has had no experience covering the story – top editors should commission a security assessment.
The #MeToo movement has raised awareness of the prevalence of sexual harassment in all areas of life. Covering it can be a difficult ethical issue because many victims do not report incidents of abuse to the authorities or come forward until some time has passed. A victim’s reasons to wait before revealing their experiences may include fear of retaliation, worry that they won’t be believed, or shame about it happening at all. Their claims may be legitimate and newsworthy, and yet hard to corroborate.
At the same time, if we report a false accusation, we may deeply harm the accused. (See entry: Allegations.) We must make every effort to check out claims before we report them. When medical reports, police reports, or internal documents such as emails or notes about disciplinary actions are not available, we can use contemporary written accounts or recollections by friends, colleagues, or family members about the incident at the time. We are very cautious about anonymous sourcing in such cases. (See entry: Sourcing.) We don’t report rumors or isolated claims and we don’t dismiss them outright – we investigate and check their credibility.
To help guide your assessment, consider the intersections between gender, race, socio-economic and social position, and the power relations between these in the situation. People in powerful social positions may enjoy trust and impunity as perpetrators and similarly, falsely portray themselves as victims.
We look for patterns of abuse. A system of sexual abuse in a workplace or institution usually is more newsworthy than an individual incident, and we can often establish such a pattern with more confidence. We can use this pattern to expose inadequate policies, faulty processes or skewed power relations that allowed the behavior in the first place and are likely to enable it to continue. In addition, even as we seek to gather details that enable us to evaluate a claim, we are aware that asking survivors of sexual assault to describe an incident or series of incidents can be very upsetting for them and we don’t press them. We are patient and take care with this kind of reporting.
Sexual orientation vs. gender identity
We avoid conflating biological and physiological sex with gender identity or expression, and with sexual orientation. They are each different. Gender identity reflects whether a person identifies internally as a man, a woman, or nonbinary. Some people experience sex, gender identity and sexual orientation as a spectrum. Sexual orientation describes sexual attraction. For instance, Austin may have been assigned female at birth but lives as a man. Austin may also be attracted to men. For some stories, none of this may be relevant, but in stories where it is relevant, check with the person to make sure you understand their gender identity, sexual orientation and pronouns. As with race, we avoid reductive labeling of group identities.
LGBTQ+ can be useful shorthand occasionally when used as an adjective, but it’s best to be specific.
When we’re relying on people, we want the information “first-hand,” meaning we want to hear it with our own ears. We also want to get information from people who know the information “first-hand” – that is, there’s no one between the information we’re seeking and the source.
These sources are authoritative and are positioned to know the facts. If the person from whom we’re getting information has a notable bias or history pertinent to the story, we must reveal that to the audience. We need to be as transparent as possible about our sources. Assertions of fact in a story should have an identifiable, credible source.
As for documents from credible sources, they can stand as an ultimate source for a fact – assuming we know they’re authentic – and should be a reporting priority. More broadly, it’s important we reach out to sources who have a sophisticated, unbiased expertise based upon access to and knowledge about the most relevant facts. That said, we cannot assume that people in authority are unbiased experts. In addition, we should value the expertise of people living in a situation we’re covering and consult them for information those in authority may not have. It’s also helpful to seek out those who might have divergent opinions from the mainstream, provided there’s a factual basis to their perspective.
Ask: What credible source might have a different perspective? Get beyond relying on easily accessible, predictable thinkers. We need to diversify our sources in all aspects of our reporting, considering perspectives across race, culture, gender, politics, geography, immigration status, economic status and religion. The Maynard Institute Fault Lines are a good framework for developing sourcing and story ideas from a variety of perspectives.
Always try to talk with people who are directly affected by the news. Avoid one-source stories unless news value dictates otherwise. When we look for comment from people we meet in a public place (including “vox”), we will gather their full name and at least try for a cursory background search. We avoid using anonymous sources unless someone could lose their life or livelihood or be placed in danger if their names are revealed. (See entry: Confidential sourcing.) We always gather the full names of people we use as sources, even if we agree that they may remain anonymous. In addition, if the information or comment is sensitive or controversial, we ask for additional identification information for our own verification purposes. Understand the pitfalls of communicating across cultures. Seek out cultural liaisons when appropriate to help create trust and communication with communities that have historical mistrust of the media.
We recognize how policies, practices, and institutions – the “structures” that regularly intersect our lives – can affect the opportunities of some people based on their race, gender, or class.
We expect our journalists to examine those structures to look for intentional or unintentional forces that are demonstrably unfair and oppress or harm people. Those lenses can help us report more accurate stories about, for example, health outcomes, home ownership or unemployment and reveal “structural inequality.”
Here is an example: A school district includes teachers, administration, policies, textbooks, hiring practices and outreach to parents – the district’s structure. Together they may give advantages to white students over students of color, leading to a so-called achievement gap. History, too, can be a factor – residential segregation and tax policies may have affected the financial resources schools needed to educate students and pay teachers.
News coverage that simply relies on test scores to declare an achievement gap based on race stops short. It should tell audiences “why” the scores are lower compared to other districts.
Final note: While “systemic racism” has become a popular phase, it’s vague and imprecise. By focusing on various structures – policies, practices, and historical legacies – we’ll more methodically see where racism may be embedded.
Clandestine journalism is not what APMG journalists normally do. In fact, many bars need clearing for a journalist to get permission to conceal their identity and occupation to gain access to information. The information being sought must be of vital public interest and unavailable any other way. If undercover reporting is necessary, it must be carefully considered in advance with a news leader and an APMG attorney. In most situations, reporters and producers should identify themselves while on the job, especially if actively seeking facts or gathering tape. If news or newsworthy remarks happen in a public place, it’s our job to report them, regardless of whether we’ve identified ourselves. However, at a ticketed or private event – or one that’s not obviously a news event – journalists should ask permission to record. It’s always OK to buy a ticket or attend a conference for background purposes, but, if asked, always identify yourself as a journalist. If staff members are at a social, nonworking event and hear news that should be reported, we ask that they circle back to the source and ask permission.
The agendas of people or companies that financially support our organizations do not influence the journalism we produce. Our news departments maintain full editorial control. All judgments about news must be in the public interest and in service of our respective editorial missions. (See entry: Funders.)
It’s our job to get the facts right. Said another way: It’s our job not to be wrong. Verification needs to be a discipline. How we verify can vary greatly – we seek out people with knowledge, find information, scour data, search documents, and understand context. Verification distinguishes journalism from activism, advertising, and entertainment. It’s the act of checking whether the original source is true and accurate. If something can’t be verified, newsrooms run the risk of reporting information that’s wrong. Casually flicking in rumor, speculation or supposition because it might be right is irresponsible. We want the incontrovertible force of facts to drive our stories. It may be impossible to totally verify every fact in a daily story, but we try, especially if the source of the news has an agenda or if we’re covering a controversial topic. We ask the source for their evidence. If a deadline is approaching, we first try to verify the most critical facts, or facts that may be disputable. We also attempt to verify any facts that sources claim on tape.
When the subjects of our stories have been traumatized – for example, victims of violence, man-made or natural disasters – we need to take care not to exploit their vulnerability and guard against retraumatizing them. We won’t speculate about how a person might have avoided a disaster or attack, and we won’t ask questions that might imply that they brought violence upon themselves because of their choices or identity expression. We will be sensitive to a person’s nonverbal communication to determine if they are comfortable describing their experience. Even if they do describe it, we don’t necessarily need to repeat the details. Does the story require those details, or could they cause trauma to others and even become a form of salacious entertainment? For example, in a police shooting of a Black or brown person, we consider whether the details of the killing advance the story or instead, retraumatize listeners. And with few exceptions, when we’re with people who appear mentally unstable, talking incoherently or otherwise compromised, we do not use them in our stories.
A similar awareness and sensitivity should be applied to people who have never interacted with the media. We should confirm that they know that what they’re telling us could be made public. We may avoid identifying them by name, instead describing them in the context of the news (“…said one man who lost his house.”) In most cases, we’ll not identify the victims of accidents, crimes or disasters until authorities or family members have released the names. There are some instances when we will report the identity of a victim before an official release, but only if the identity is clearly newsworthy, and with the approval of the head of news. For people quoted in our stories who may be exposed to harm or retribution because they spoke to us, we’ll typically withhold their identities.
When speaking to undocumented immigrants, we keep in mind their vulnerability. Laws may differ from the practices followed by authorities. Some families have mixed immigration status, and this may affect their comfort talking with us, requiring extra sensitivity. We will research and understand the immigration laws and practices that may affect our sources. Regarding news coverage of a suicide, we will report it as a cause of death with proper attribution if it happens to a public official, people in the public eye, or is otherwise newsworthy. We generally will not include details of the suicide or speculate on why the person killed themselves. (See entry: Sourcing.)