Acquiring, publishing and correcting information

One of the most common ethical guidelines of a journalist is truthfulness. The first guideline by IFJ states: “Respect for truth and for the right of the public to truth is the first duty of the journalist”.

It is the journalist’s duty to sift out truth from behind assumptions and rumors. A journalist must not leave unpublished or otherwise keep secret information that is crucial to the news, even if they would water down a juicy article, or take the edge away from a story.

In many cases, a news topic that at a glance seems meaningful, interesting and surprising flattens out to be boring and ordinary, or even turns out to be downright wrong when it is dwelled upon in more depth. This feels frustrating,
but it is an essential part of journalistic work.

Despite the temptation, the journalist must not make news out
of information that has proven to be false, even if they would serve a good cause and even if the reporter would know that s/he would not get caught.

No story is fair if it omits facts of major importance or significance. Fairness includes completeness.

No story is fair if it includes essentially irrelevant information at the expense of significant facts. Fairness includes relevance.

No story is fair if it consciously or unconsciously misleads or even deceives the reader. Fairness includes honesty – leveling with the reader.

No story is fair if reporters hide their biases or emotions behind such subtly pejorative words as “refused,” “despite,” “quietly,” “admit” and “massive.” Fairness requires straightforwardness ahead of flashiness.

The Washington Post Standards and Ethics

A second important value is honesty, which is most often realized through using only direct methods in gathering and presenting information. It is recommended that a journalist announces their occupation while conducting their work, and remain otherwise open in their work as well.

It is possible, however, to deviate from this if there would be no other way to find out significant information. For example, it would be hard to get information regarding a closed community if a reporter had no access to survey the actions of it. If a journalist sees that something is happening within the community which should be publicized, s/he can keep her/his occupation a secret.

The Washington Post’s instructions regarding this matter are strict: “reporters should make every effort to remain in the audience, to stay off the stage, to report the news, not to make the news. In gathering news, reporters will not misrepresent their identity. They will not identify themselves as police officers, physicians or anything other than journalists.”

The journalist must aim to provide truthful information.
The journalist is encouraged to make known his/her profession during the course of an assignment. Information should be obtained openly.
Information obtained must be checked as thoroughly as possible, including when it has been published previously.
The public must be able to distinguish facts from opinions and fictitious material. Similarly, photographic and sound material must not be used in a misleading manner.

Guidelines for journalists, the Council for Mass Media in Finland

A lively discussion was raised in Finland in 2012 when a journalist from the country’s biggest newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, infiltrated the camp of a Christian society which organized courses that aim at changing one’s sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual, or to become “harmonious” as the organisation called it.

The newspaper justified its actions by stating that without infiltration it would not have been possible to find out what actually happens during the courses: previously journalists had not gained access to the camps.

A journalist also has to differentiate between facts and opinions. The reader should be able to tell which texts express a personal opinion, and which strive for objective conveying of information.

According to the Austrian code: “Readers shall be left in no doubt as to whether
a newspaper item is a factual report, the reproduction of the views of a third party or third parties, or a comment.”

The same applies to the use of illustrations and sound. Also within a singular article it should be clear which part is the journalist’s own description of the event, and what is said by the interviewee. In practice this is often done by using quotation marks to signify the interviewee’s utterances.

The difference between truth and opinion also applies to advertising. The division between announcements and edited content should be clear. This differentiation has been made more difficult for example by the emergence
of advertorials.

A journalist also has to differentiate between facts and opinions as well as announcements and edited content.

Remaining critical is an important value that guides a journalist’s work and which acts on many levels. First of all, sources of information should be scrutinized with a critical eye.

The Finnish guidelines for journalists highlight that “[being critical] is most important in controversial topics, as the source of information may have a will to benefit or to harm”.

Many kinds of parties contact editorial offices, and journalists should always stay alert as to why. Does the person contacting the press want positive publicity for themselves or their company, negative publicity for someone else, or publicity for a cause, that they think for some other reason is important?

In addition to a single source of information, a part of the instructions highlights the critical mindset in a broader way.

According to guidelines of the international news agency Associated Press’ (AP): “A newspaper should provide constructive criticism for all groups in society”. The paper, the TV channel or the radio station should thus remain critical in relation to what it covers, so that the entirety of their offerings would convey acritical image of the society.

The US-based Society of Professional Journalists (SJP) stresses especially the
criticism towards decision-makers.

A journalist should be critical also of themselves.

Additionally, according to the guidelines a journalist should “give a voice to the voiceless” and to “seek sources whose voices we seldom hear”. Journalists should therefore pay attention to what parties get to provide their voices. SJP’s instructions thus take a stand on the common phenomenon, where it is easier to get your voice heard through media the more societal power you hold.

A journalist should be critical also of themselves. A journalist has to pay attention to how her/his own values and experiences affect the work. Even though a news article would be seemingly impartial, and the reporter would let the voices of opposing parties be heard, the strong opinion of the journalist can influence the tone of the article. One alternative to remain critical of oneself is to publish a comment or a column alongside the article, where the opinions of the reporter are laid bare.

Nearly all ethical code publications of journalists stress the accuracy and validity of published information, and the checking of these things. Even though work is in practice often characterized by hurry, it must not be the reason why facts remain unchecked. A journalist and at least the editor of the publication are responsible for the correctness of the information they have presented. All information has to be checked thoroughly also when it has previously been published elsewhere. In the case of errors, journalists have to correct them without delay.

In online publications, it is not enough to remove the false information or to delete the article. The audience has to be informed of the error and the fact that it has been corrected.

The principle of openness also applies to correcting errors. It is good to tell the audience in a straightforward way, what kinds of practices and principles the media has regarding errors and corrections.

The source of the information used should be told to the audience. Only when this is done, does the audience have an opportunity to assess the trustworthiness of the sources. Facts that have already been published have to be checked as carefully as the new ones. The fact that a piece of information has been published in a paper does not make it correct. This is how journalists avoid circulating mistakes made by others.