Ethics and News Nonprofits

Dean Miller (contentdean@gmail.com) is a Seattle-area ethics consultant and a fact-checker for LeadStories.com. He has been a newspaper editor, Nieman Fellow, Poynter Ethics Fellow and director of Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy. Here he makes the business case for publishing your code of ethics.

News organizations have had a long, misguided tradition of refusing to make public their ethics policies. Nonprofit news organizations can distinguish themselves by taking the opposite tack, creating a code of ethics that is extensive, regularly updated, and readily available online to staff and the audience.

Even when they had a strong ethical tradition handed down over generations, newspaper editors felt no compulsion to put it into print. They may have been dissuaded by their lawyers and unions from doing so. But the process of hashing out a written code of ethics and empowering those who want to examine your work will up your game. As Bob Steele, the longtime ethics scholar at The Poynter Institute, puts it: Ethical journalism is excellent journalism.

Concern about handing legal ammunition to your critics is misplaced. Anyone suing you can use the discovery process to find out whether you have policies that you have not made public and where you have been inconsistent. If someone feels they have not been treated fairly, examining the situation together with the ethics code in front of you is a good place to start a discussion and resolve the dispute amicably. Only the most unreasonable critics will fail to notice your seriousness of purpose ­– how you must balance the competing values of seeking truth and minimizing needless harm, for instance.

Building relationships with your audience is a business imperative for news nonprofits. Sometimes it has to be done one conversation at a time, including answering hostile phone calls and emails and accepting invitations to speak to groups that are skeptical about journalism’s motives and practices. Being able to point to your published code of ethics is a way of showing your audience respect. It also improves the quality of the conversation by providing a tool the audience members can use to come up with the right words to express their concerns. The conversation is elevated by a shared vocabulary.

When I was executive editor of the Post Register in Idaho Falls, Idaho, in the early 1990s we put a year and a half of spirited, sometimes acrimonious, debate – involving staff and readers – into getting a code of ethics online. A really important part of it was posting case studies of why we edited certain stories the way we did, why we blurred a face, why we withheld the name of a drug suspect to protect the identity of her child. In our ethics section, we posted the original story, and if the reader hovered over a highlighted section, they saw my commentary about the ethical considerations.

More radical was our transparency about ourselves. Every news staffer filled out a disclosure form delivered to me. When necessary, I disclosed conflicts of interest, ethics transgressions and disciplinary action. For example, a very experienced reporter showed up on a political candidate’s list of donors. We had to explain why that was unacceptable. After my wife was elected to the school board, one day I walked by the education reporter’s desk and casually mentioned how the schools were doing a great job getting high-caffeine soft drinks and junk food out of the cafeteria. The resulting story won an award. But because the reporter couldn’t just ignore a story idea from the executive editor, we posted on our site that I had violated the ethics standards and that we would make sure the education reporter was overseen only by a separate editor.

Telling people what your standards are and showing people that you’re upholding those standards can only improve your standing in the community. The proof for me came when my newspaper made a hideous mistake in a headline about a police department, requiring a front-page apology. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with people saying they wished more corporations would apologize like that. We were a newspaper with community support, and one of the few in the country with a growing circulation.

A grant-supported Poynter Institute program prompted the ethics initiatives in Idaho Falls and similar ethics codifications at a variety of news organizations around the country. We had the benefit of each other’s ideas, under the expert guidance of Kelly McBride. I would encourage anyone at a nonprofit who sees the value of an ethics code to work with peers at other news organizations.

It’s valuable to follow up the publication of your ethics code with an annual audit to gauge how you are meeting your standards. Editor columns throughout the year should link to the code when engaging with critics or describing the ethics process that led to controversial decisions. Send a questionnaire to your news staff once a year to be sure you know of potential conflicts of interest and make clear that they are expected to make a contemporaneous update if anything changes. What property do they own? Are they making political donations or becoming active in causes? Have they just married into the family of a newsmaker you cover? Publishing the outcome of the highlights of that audit will really distinguish you from your competition. Not every detail should be public, but the public deserves to know if the courts reporter is married to the lead attorney in a Supreme Court case she is covering, or if the podcast host is the playwright whose play is being promoted. (Both cases drawn from real life.)

Transparency is everything for news organizations with nonprofit status. To maintain that status under tax law, you have an obligation to pursue the mission for which you are organized, and it cannot be partisan politics. If you have a point of view and funders seeking a certain outcome, ethically you should disclose that. All news organizations accept money from powerful interests in order to keep operating. The reliance on advertising among for-profit news outlets is self-evident and often casts suspicion on the content. A nonprofit that funds its news staff with subscriber revenue has a lot more independence. But two-thirds of INN members have three or more revenue streams. News nonprofits must disclose their funding.

Ideally, the audience should be able to easily find that financial disclosure information, the mission statement, and editorial ethics policies all in one place. A statement saying you subscribe to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is insufficient without specifics of how it applies to your organization and how people can raise ethics issue with you. If you are soliciting and receiving funds for specific kinds of coverage, disclosure also must happen where the content is displayed.

One final bit of advice: Nonprofits must be wary of falling into the trap of not seeing their own ethical transgressions because they are thinking, “We’re the good guys.” Before doing anything out of the ordinary, like plugging your own staffer’s book or your donor’s event, ask how your audience might perceive what you are doing and take steps to at least be transparent, or to find alternatives that are at peace with your ethics code.

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Examples of a code of ethics page:

https://revealnews.org/ethics-guide/

https://www.minnpost.com/minnpost-code-of-ethics/

Examples of general financial support disclosure:

https://www.texastribune.org/support-us/donors-and-members/

https://www.bridgemi.com/about

Examples of stories marked with a funding disclosure:

https://www.seattletimes.com/about-project-homeless/

https://apnews.com/article/042528176366efe911484e39091b7cf2