Ethical Guidelines for the Nonprofit Journalism Organization

(This post was written by Amy Schmitz Weiss in 2011 for The Hub, a resource center for community-based and nonprofit journalism organizations.)

Whether you are a startup or an established news organization, having an ethics policy or code of ethics is necessary. As a startup, it may be confusing to know where to start or what to include in an ethics policy. If you are an established news organization, reviewing and updating your ethics code can be helpful.

To help you get started with creating a code of ethics, answer these questions below:

1. Fundraising and Donors. As a nonprofit entity, your organization has to decide what your policy is with donors and the funds they give. Do you want to disclose funder’s names and the amounts of money they give? How will you handle the role of donors who want to be involved in the editorial process? How will you handle anonymous donations? Will you accept anonymous donations and will you disclose that information to the public?

2. Newsgathering. As part of your ethics code, you should specify your organization’s newsgathering and reporting techniques. What is your policy on the identification of sources for stories? What do you do to protect the anonymity of sources? What are the procedures you use for obtaining data or documents for stories and how do you communicate this policy to the public?

3. Plagiarism/Fabrication/Image Manipulation. What is your policy on plagiarism? What procedures does your organization follow if information has been fabricated by someone on staff? How do you handle the editing of photos, images or videos on your website? What is your policy about cropping and dodging of photos?

4. Conflicts of Interest. What is the policy for staff members regarding personal investments (short-term trading of equity securities, futures or options, etc.)? Do you allow your staff to participate in outside activities from work and if so, what kind of activities? If your organization receives funds from a grantmaker to pursue a special reporting project, what is your disclosure policy about how those funds were used?

5. Contributors/Freelancers. What are your guidelines in how you obtain stories from freelancers or contributors?

6. Correction Policy. If a mistake occurs, what are the procedures to correct it? How much time will it take to make the correction? How will you inform the public of the mistake?

7. Diversity. What is your diversity policy? What are the laws in your state as they relate to diversity in the workplace and how are they implemented in the newsroom?

8. Open-Door Policy. How do you handle complaints or comments in the workplace? Do you have an open-door policy for your staff? What are the procedures for staff to make a complaint or comment? How is the matter rectified?

9. Transparency. What kind of information about your organization and staff do you want the public to have access to? As a nonprofit entity, what IRS documents do you want to make publicly available? What is your transparency policy? How much information will be made available and when?

These questions above are a start to help you think through establishing a code of ethics in your news organization. Here are some other venues that can also help:

1. Your Colleagues – Other Nonprofit News Organizations. Check out other nonprofit news organizations for ideas and inspiration on ethics guidelines. For example, ProPublica and the Voice of San Diego each have its own code of ethics created from scratch. The Center for Public Integrity adopted the Code of Ethics by the Society of Professional Journalists. Also, WisconsinWatch.org (produced by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism) adopted the SPJ Code of Ethics but added a conflict of interest policy and diversity statement. Other news organizations use a combination of ethics policies from various sources such as the St. Louis Beacon draws part of its ethics guidelines from the Poynter Institute and the St. Louis Dispatch.

2. Centers for Ethics. You may find inspiration and ideas for ethical guidelines from the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as well as from the Center for Digital Ethics & Policy at Loyola University in Chicago.

3. J-Toolbox: Ethics. The Journalist’s Toolbox is a great website of resources for journalists on a variety of topics. The website has an ethics page that includes links to ethics guidelines from various news organizations and professional associations, case studies, checklists, and relevant articles on the topic.

In conclusion, creating a code of ethics or ethical policy will help your staff by providing them with a guide on how to perform the job. The ethics policy will also help to communicate to the public the journalistic standards your organization abides by.