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Ethics Case Studies
Using this Process to Craft a Policy

WHAT: Think of all the types of situations in which you might need a policy to help you decide, for instance, whether to use an anonymous source, or whether to let a source review what you’re planning to write. List all the angles. Enlist other people in your discussion, including — if you can — people who aren’t journalists. In policy decisions, the question usually comes up front.

Let’s say you want to write a policy for your newspaper or magazine about pre-publication review, or that you as a free-lancer want to have a policy for yourself that’s well thought-out. Here you start with the question: Do we let sources see what we’re planning to write? And if we do, when?

It used to be that a reporter would absolutely NEVER let a source check out a story before it appeared. But there has been growing acceptance of the idea that it’s more important to be accurate than to be independent. Attitudes have changed because of the importance of credibility. And there are some very complicated topics where it is probably a good idea to go back to your source and say something like: “Here’s what I understood you to say about down pillows and bird flu. Do I have it right?” Stories involving figures — budgets, taxes, business reports — are ripe for errors. Sometimes you’re unsure whether a source said “an important thing” or “unimportant thing.”

WHO: This is the sort of decision that should involve a large and representative sample of the people who will have to follow it. Ultimately, the decision may be made by the highest level of management, but it should be an informed and collaborative decision.
Consider, too, the people outside the media organization who will be affected by what policy you decide to follow.

Even if you’re a lone free-lancer, you’d be wise to consult a few others in arriving at your personal policy for pre-publication review. Discuss. Argue. Test your ideas. Pre-publication review may give a source confidence that the reporter cares about getting it right. It could enhance your credibility and reputation. Offering to let them check what you’ve written may get them to open up. On the other side of the argument are tradition, and the worry that sources will want to take control of your story. They’ll try to change what you’ve written, to put themselves in the best light. They, and your colleagues, will think you have no backbone or professional pride.

WHY: These are principles (standards) you will use in deciding what to do. In most cases, it comes down to a balance between telling the truth and minimizing possible harms. Identify these and other moral responsibilities. The best decision is the one that does the greatest good for the greatest number of stakeholders.

You might want to consider what others have done, and what standards they used. Steve Weinberg, former head of Investigative Reporters and Editors, is quoted in one journalism ethics textbook as saying, “I have practiced PPR as a newspaper staff writer, a magazine free-lancer and a book author. Never have I regretted my practice. What I do regret is failing to do it during the first decade of my mindless adherence to tradition.”

Jay Mathews, a veteran education reporter for The Washington Post, shows whole stories to sources, even though it makes his editors uneasy. He wrote about that in The Post’s May 31, 2003, edition.
“I have shown every story I have written to all the sources I could find,” he said. “... They are welcome to argue about the tone, the analysis or anything else that bothers them, but I change only the things that I am convinced are inaccurate.”

The balance here is between being as accurate as possible in truth-telling, and maintaining your independence as a journalist.

HOW: How do you achieve the outcome you’ve identified as the best? This is definitely a situation where you want to write it down, and consider sharing it with your readers and audience.

Here’s one possible policy for pre-publication review:
1. Make it clear to your source that only you or your editor can change what you’ve written.
2. The review is for accuracy only. Just the facts, not context, tone or organization.
3. Don’t change direct quotes. You should have them on tape. But it’s OK to negotiate if the source says his first quote was wrong.
4. The best time to double-check is during the interview.
5. It’s best to review specific passages; not the entire story.
6. Remember: YOU DON’T HAVE TO CHANGE ANYTHING! But if it’s wrong, you certainly should.

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