Being Accountable to the Public

Part of a journalist’s job is to hold people in positions of authority accountable to the public. News organizations have a similar ethical obligation.

This section — part of an ongoing series on media law — explores the ethical obligations of journalists and news organizations alike.

Full Disclosure

News media are more transparent than many businesses because their work is under constant scrutiny. In many countries, consumers have many options for news and can reject those whose standards fall short.

If business or political groups influence a news organization’s editorial choices, that should be disclosed. Media should explain how they make editorial decisions, especially controversial ones. Deviations from usual standards should be explained. News organizations should invite readers to comment and encourage them to raise concerns and complaints. An impartial staff member should address complaints.

All news organizations make mistakes. They should strive to minimize mistakes by establishing fact-checking procedures. When errors occur, they should be acknowledged promptly and corrected.

Citizen Journalism

Most media ethical guidelines make sense for citizen journalists and bloggers who face particular challenges.

Unlike mainstream journalists, bloggers often publish anonymously or use a pseudonym. In some societies, those holding controversial views withhold their identity for safety. But those who speak anonymously still have an ethical obligation to be truthful, accurate and as transparent as possible.

Many bloggers encourage readers to engage in discussions. They invite user-generated content and post it on their blogs. They may link to external sites and excerpt others’ work for the purpose of commentary.

These techniques add vitality to a blog. But bloggers should consider if they will verify links, moderate postings by others or establish policies for certain types of content. It is wise to post these policies prominently and to apply them consistently.

Many journalists are turning to social media platforms that allow individuals to post content. These platforms can provide story ideas, allow journalists to interact with a community, or encourage readers to visit a news organization’s website.

Social Media Challenges

But social media pose new challenges. Verifying postings can be difficult. Reporters should make it clear when they use social media as a source. They should be cautious when they use information that concerns minors, could damage someone’s reputation, or that someone claims to own, such as a trade secret. The laws of libel, privacy and copyright apply in cyberspace.

Some news organizations have policies regarding employees’ use of social media, such as discouraging personal viewpoints on their Facebook pages or discussing a developing story that has not yet been published. Some organizations require reporters to have separate professional and personal Facebook pages.

A Legal Right to Be Wrong?

Many journalists believe they should not have to justify their role as government watchdogs and as conduits of public information. They think that they must have the legal right to be wrong sometimes.

But journalists’ ethical standards can be more stringent than legal ones. They encourage journalists to examine their motivations, methods and product. They encourage reporters and editors to ask tough questions about how they make decisions and to consider other perspectives.

Adopting and applying ethics principles provides a mandate to act independently when seeking and pursuing truth.

They can help journalists do the best job possible.

Other parts in this series include The Independent Journalist and Objectivity in the News.

(Adapted from an article published in the Media Law Handbook by the Bureau of International Information Programs. Download the complete Media Law Handbook [PDF, 2.6MB].)

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