Last spring, The Boston Globe probably was more upset than most newspapers by the Jayson Blair affair at The New York Times. Blair had once been a reporting intern at the Globe, and the Globe quickly found that several of his articles contained inaccuracies. This was not the first time in recent years that unacceptable behavior by a Globe writer had become public, each one damaging the reputation of a major voice in its community-as well as damaging the career of the writer involved.
Martin Baron, the paper's editor, led an effort to recast and reissue a statement of standards that would help avoid similar transgressions and errors in the news departments (excluding columnists) in the future. When we read the Globe's new statement, we were impressed enough to ask for permission (which was readily granted) to reprint it for our readers. Those who read this document carefully will find it very different from the "codes" and "guidelines" disseminated by most professional associations and media organizations. It tackles the subject of error freshly and clearly, and omits (a separate Globe task force is working on them) conflict of interest and other situations that have received a lot of recent attention.
What is included are sections on errors & corrections; granting anonymity; verifications of an applicant's background; quotes, attribution and datelines; and fairness. All of these are major concerns of anyone interested in mass media ethics. Winding up this document are short sections on photographs and their use, and how one may raise ethical concerns within the organization.
From Marty Baron
To: The Staff
Date: June 24, 2003
We are fortunate at The Boston Globe to have an exceptionally talented and dedicated staff. All of you work hard under ceaseless pressures, and you routinely produce journalism of great distinction. Because of you, the Globe has a reputation as one of America's best newspapers.
Our achievements and our goal of consistent excellence, however, can be undermined overnight by a single colleague who behaves unethically, makes repeated errors, or treats the people we cover unfairly. News organizations must do everything possible to protect themselves against ethical and reportorial lapses.
We at the Globe aim to meet the highest standards of our profession, and most of the time we do. From time to time, we have re-examined procedures designed to assure accuracy, fairness and ethical rigor. I previously distributed memos on accuracy, sourcing, and fairness. Now may be a good time to remind ourselves of those policies and to build on them.
During meetings with the staff about ethics and accuracy, we have concentrated on these areas: how we deal with errors and corrections; our use of anonymous sources and other unidentified individuals; verifying the resumes of job candidates; attribution of material obtained from other publications or news outlets; overall fairness; and the need for an environment where ethics concerns can be raised freely and addressed appropriately.
The policies below emerged from longstanding practice at the Globe and from recent discussions with staff members throughout our newsroom. They were developed with one principle in mind: Our overriding responsibility is to our readers. We are committed to providing them an accurate, fair and honest newspaper. We cannot permit practices that betray their trust while bringing dishonor on a Globe newsroom comprised of so many diligent, hard-working and honest journalists.
Errors and Corections
Our aim is to have no errors, but we all recognize that errors are made. We should correct them quickly and forthrightly. We will not undermine anyone for acknowledging periodic errors and setting the record straight. On the contrary, failure to take note of mistakes and to correct them violates our standards of ethical conduct.
Still, repeated errors by a reporter, editor, photographer or graphics artist deserve special attention. A pattern of mistakes today may signal serious trouble, both today and in the future. This newspaper insists on consistent accuracy, and we are committed to removing error-prone staff members from positions where they can continue to erode our credibility.
While we have sought to be diligent at correcting errors, we have had no consistent system for monitoring who is making mistakes and following up with appropriate corrective action.
We will soon introduce a new Web-based form for tracking mistakes and corrections. Whenever an error is made, the form must be completed, either by a staff member responsible for the errors or, in the case of a freelancer, by an editor who has discussed the mistake with the writer. The form will require basic information-what the error was and when and where it was published and will provide space for a draft correction. Those unfamiliar with our style for writing corrections should look to the ones we currently publish as models, and Michael Larkin will circulate a memo offering overall guidance. Staffers and freelancers must have a conversation with an editor, in person or over the telephone, to explain how an error occurred.
Reporters who are asked for corrections by those covered in stories or by others must alert their department heads, and then inform them of their response to the correction request. The corrections form and the draft correction must be submitted to department heads.
When requests for corrections are sent directly to the newsroom's senior editors, those requests will be forwarded to department heads, who are responsible for promptly reporting back whether a correction is required.
Worth remembering is that all communication that threatens, or even hints at, legal action must be relayed immediately to [attorney] Mary Jane Wilkinson.
Some individuals may have a reputation for being error-prone, prompting assignment editors or copy editors to check nearly every fact. In those cases, many errors may be caught early and never find their way into publication. While safeguards of that sort are obviously applauded, we still need to alert supervisors and senior managers to problem cases among our staff. Copy editors and assignment editors are urged to report any such cases.
Error-prone staffers-reporters, editors, photographers, graphics artists and others-will be subject to having their work formally monitored for accuracy. Monitoring may take the form of audits that seek to verify facts, quotations, and the overall substantive content of staffers' work. Supervisors of employees with large numbers of errors will work closely with them to help ensure that our journalistic standards are met. Those who do not improve will be subject to progressive discipline under the Guild contract.
Editors should share with their fellow editors relevant information about a staffer's accuracy and ethics when that staffer is called upon to work for another department.
If a pattern of errors by a number of staffers suggests a systemic problem in our newsroom, we will offer whatever training or consultation might be helpful. We also expect to hold training sessions on how to conduct the most thorough and reliable fact-checking possible.
Finally, we will add information to our Corrections column on Page A2 to make it easier for readers to report errors or other issues of concern. Readers will be told how they can report concerns by phone, letter, fax or e-mail. All of those communications will be monitored, and corrections will be forwarded directly to department heads. We will keep track of each request and whether action was taken.
While we aim to hold staffers accountable for repeated errors, we are determined to avoid making errors in the first place. That requires a culture of care by everyone on the staff.
At the most basic level, staffers must double-check proper names, titles, addresses, phone numbers, and web addresses. Staffers should rely on standard reference tools like telephone books, government or organization directories, and official Web sites. Reporters, photographers and graphics artists should certify that proper names have been double-checked by typing "CQ" where they appear. In the case of foreign names where spellings in English can legitimately vary, reporters and editors should ask Michael Larkin to determine, in consultation with the staff, the spelling we will use. Writers and editors will then be told of the preferred spelling.
Relying on clips is no excuse for an error, and it is an especially poor reference tool for double-checking names and titles.
Anonymous sourcing has become a standard journalistic technique and can be appropriate at times, but it should be used with caution. We have guidelines for its use:
* In most instances, anonymous sourcing should be approved by [executive editor] Helen Donovan, [deputy managing editor/news operations] Michael Larkin, the paper's duty officer, or me. On rare occasions when this is not possible, anonymous sourcing should be approved by a department head or deputy department head. Department-level managers are responsible for knowing our guidelines on sourcing and for enforcing them. If a waiver of the guidelines appears warranted, department-level managers should seek approval from Helen, Michael, the duty officer, or me.
* Department heads, assignment editors or senior managers should know the identities of confidential sources to assure that they satisfy our guidelines on what constitutes a reliable and knowledgeable source. Reporters may not promise sources that they will not share their identity with a supervising editor. Naturally, the supervising editors are bound by the terms of confidentiality extended to the source.
* Confidential sources must have personal knowledge of the information they are passing along.
* We do not grant anonymous sourcing to people who are engaged in speculation.
* We do not grant anonymous sourcing to people who use it as cover for a personal attack.
* We do not use anonymous sourcing when on-the-record sourcing is readily available.
* When using anonymous sourcing, we should do our best to explain why the source sought anonymity.
* We do not promise sources that we will refrain from additional reporting or efforts to verify the information being provided.
* We do not promise sources that we will refrain from seeking comment from others on the subject of the story.
* We make every effort to indicate what makes the confidential source a reliable and knowledgeable one. The source, for example, may be "a lawyer involved in the case," "a government official involved in the matter," or "a business associate." Using only the term "source" is not permitted except under unusual circumstances, and then it must be approved by Michael Larkin, Helen Donovan, a newsroom duty officer, or me. The phrase "a source familiar with the situation" is no better than the term "source," and it is barred except when approved by those already mentioned.
* Phrases such as "reportedly," "is reported to be," or "is expected to be" are typically nothing more than thinly disguised anonymous sourcing. Those phrases and others like them should be avoided, and editors should ask for the source of that information.
* Reporters should press sources for the most informative form of identification that does not betray their identity. They should also make every effort to disclose the source's motivation in providing information.
* We should not refer to the plural ("sources," "officials," or "aides") when there is only one source.
* We do not say "other sources" when anonymously quoting someone who already has been quoted by name in the same story.
* Some sources will offer comment anonymously but then insist that, in exchange, we write that they had "no comment." Offering sources that cover amounts to a bargain to deceive readers and is not acceptable.
Apart from anonymous sourcing are references in stories to individuals whose identity is not revealed to readers. In general, we strongly discourage shielding identities. There are some instances where this is allowed. For example, we do not reveal the identities of sexual assault victims without their permission. We may also protect the identities of witnesses to crimes who fear retribution.
Withholding identities in other situations-out of compassion, for example-generally requires the approval of Helen Donovan, Michael Larkin, the paper's duty officer, or me. That includes instances where we publish given names and last initials, or given names only. The rare story that uses such a device also calls for an explanation on why a full name does not appear. We should refrain from publishing fictional names for real people as a means of shielding their identity.
Reporters should know the names of individuals whose identity is being protected and should also know how to reach them. Department heads, assignment editors and senior editors are entitled to know the names of unidentified individuals mentioned in Globe stories.
Wire services that we use may have their own, different standards for attribution. While we generally rely on the judgment of wire services that over time have proven credible, we may at times choose not to publish information where the sourcing is below our own standards. We have withheld such information in the past, particularly in cases where wire services are merely accounts of anonymously sourced stories in other publications.
Verification of an Applicant's Background
Some department heads have routinely verified the college degrees of job applicants. Many others, however, have not.
Department heads, a designee, or the Human Resources Department will now verify college degrees and other salient facts of an applicant's resumﾂ. They should inform hires that the information contained on their resumﾂs will be checked and that inaccurate information will be cause to rescind offers of employment.
Quotes, Attribution, and Datelines
All quotations should be attributed appropriately. Quotations gathered from other publications, wire services or pool reports should make clear where they originated. Naturally, every effort should be made to secure our own interviews and to obtain our own quotes. If a reporter wishes to use a previously published quote, we should try to verify its accuracy. We should do nothing in either quotations or paraphrasing to imply that we have conducted interviews that were actually conducted by others.
To avoid false impressions, it may be important at times to distinguish between personal interviews and those conducted by telephone or e-mail. If a quote is based upon a formal statement, we should say so.
We should be especially careful in using quotes that were reconstructed by interview subjects from their memory. Most people cannot recall the precise words they used five minutes ago. Recalling quotes from weeks, months or years ago is especially troublesome. If we wish to use a quote that is recalled from an interview subject's memory, the story should make clear that this is how the remark or conversation is currently remembered and by whom.
One potential transgression is reporting scenes as if we observed them when, in fact, we did not. Our policy prohibits such misrepresentations. Reporters are strongly discouraged from relying upon observations made by others. In the rare instances when using the observations of others is appropriate, our stories must make clear that we did not personally observe the scene being described, and we must identify who made the observation.
We must take extra care with datelines. To qualify for a dateline, a substantial portion of the reporting must have taken place at that location. A dateline, in combination with the wording of a story, should never mislead readers into believing that a reporter witnessed an event that he or she did not actually observe.
When a story takes place in several locations, the dateline should be from the location that matches the story's central news element (as long as we were there). When two or more reporters work together on a story, a tagline must make clear who reported from where.
Our reporting should be thorough, careful and honest, informed by a sincere effort to gather all relevant facts and to interview all appropriate individuals.
One of the most common complaints from the subjects of our stories and our columns is that they are not given ample opportunity to respond to accusations against them. Some say they were not called at all for a response. Others say they were called at the last minute without being provided ample time to respond thoroughly or knowledgeably. Many times, they say they were called for a general comment but never alerted to very specific allegations that would be made against them by others we interviewed.
In the cause of fairness, we must allow principal subjects of our stories a reasonable period of time to respond to any allegations against them. They should not first learn of allegations when they read our paper in the morning.
During a major breaking story, the response time obviously becomes abbreviated. However, when stories are in development over several days or weeks, we should allow more time for a response.
We also should be open to the possibility that a response may be sufficiently persuasive to justify significantly changing, holding, or even abandoning a story.
This is not to suggest that we soften our stories or columns or hold back when we have assembled sufficient documentation and conducted all appropriate interviews. It only means that our stories and columns need to meet basic standards of fairness.
If the subjects of our stories cannot be reached, we should make every effort to explain why. For example, if someone could not be reached because he was traveling, we should say so. If they were called only late at night, we should say so.
Reporters should not assume that subjects of stories will not comment merely because they did not comment when they were asked to do so previously.
When reporting that formal charges were brought against an individual or institution, we should bring readers up to date, noting either that those charges are pending or how they have been resolved.
Our journalism must not be motivated by personal or professional grievances, and our news report must be free of any political or ideological agenda.
All of us, photographers and those who assign photographs, share responsibility for assuring the integrity of photographs published in the Globe. We should never do anything that might raise questions among readers about the fundamental honesty of the paper's visual images.
Images that aim to depict reality must be genuine in every way. No people or objects may be added, rearranged, reversed, distorted or removed from the scene. We should not choreograph scenes that we are endeavoring to document, whether the photographs are intended to capture a news event or accompany a feature story.
Adjustments of color or gray scale should be limited to those minimally necessary for clear and accurate reproduction, analogous to the burning and dodging that formerly took place in the darkroom processing of images.
Pictures of news situations must not be posed.
In the cases of collages, montages, portraits, fashion or home design illustrations, fanciful contrived situations, and demonstrations of how a device is used, our intervention should be unmistakable to the reader-and unmistakably free of any intent to deceive. Photo illustrations should be labeled as such in the credit line.
Portraiture, by definition, is a situation controlled by a photographer through lighting, composition, choice of location and direction given to the subject. As a portrait, it should be evident to the reader that the photographer has influenced the composition of the photograph. If there is the slightest doubt that readers might be confused about circumstances surrounding the photograph, our intervention should be acknowledged in captions and credits. Portraiture is the only circumstance when it is permissible for a photographer to influence the scene being photographed.
If at any time there is confusion about what is permissible, a senior photo editor should be consulted.
Raising Ethical Concerns
Anyone who becomes aware of ethical violations or harbors any ethics concerns is urged to report them immediately to a senior manager. While some staff members may fear being viewed as informers, please bear in mind that our responsibilities to readers supersede personal loyalties and friendships.
In reporting ethics concerns, staff members are invited to circumvent their immediate supervisors if they feel more comfortable doing so or if they fear that their concerns will not be taken seriously.
Managers bear a special responsibility for being familiar with our ethics and accuracy standards and for enforcing them. They should listen to concerns expressed by the staff and act appropriately.
No ethics guidelines can cover every circumstance, and staff members periodically will find themselves uncertain about what is permissible or proper. When there are doubts about ethics issues, staff members are encouraged to discuss them with their immediate editors and, if warranted, with the newsroom's senior editors.
The litmus test in most instances is whether we are deceiving readers. If we are, then we have a problem.
While newsrooms are based on a high level of trust, they have always maintained structures and procedures to catch carelessness, sloppiness, and even outright dishonesty. That is why we have layers of editors. Assignment editors and copy editors are urged to raise important, substantive questions about stories, and reporters should be prepared to answer them. Department heads should devise procedures that foster good copy flow so that assignment editors and copy editors have enough time to do their jobs properly. We want an atmosphere where challenges and questions are aired and fully addressed.
We know, based on painful experience, that the systems for detecting problems with our journalism are imperfect. Still, we cannot stop trying to make improvements, and we won't.
Keeping in mind our obligation to readers, we will continue to discuss whether there are additional constructive measures that can be taken to assure the accuracy and fairness of our work.
* MEDIA ETHICS wishes to thank Boston Globe Ombudsman Christine Chinlund and Editor Marty Baron for supplying and permission to reprint this document.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Fall 2003 (15:1), pp. 6,27-30.