THIS IS A DRAFT DOCUMENT
Principally authored by Alan Sunderland — as Journalism Advocate for the Fourth
Estate — and in collaboration with W. Jeffrey Brown.
The mission of the Fourth Estate is to contribute to a healthy society by fostering, supporting and incubating a sustainable and vibrant free press.
Ultimately, the only sustainable free press is an ethical free press.
The fourth Estate recognizes three core principles that are fundamental to the
ethical practice of journalism:
◦ Reporting the TRUTH
◦ Ensuring TRANSPARENCY
◦ Serving the COMMUNITY
These three principles form the basis of a more detailed Code of Practice for anyone seeking to create ethical, principled journalism, regardless of their background, employment status or means of delivery.
This code is equally relevant for professional journalists and for those outside the profession who are seeking to report honestly and fairly on the events and issues relevant to their community.
The first section of this code spells out each of the standards.
The second section explains the practical steps you should take at every stage of the work you do as a journalist to ensure you abide by these standards.
THE ETHICAL STANDARDS OF JOURNALISM
• Ensure that all the facts you include in your work are accurate.
• Do not leave out any facts that are material to an understanding of what you
are reporting on.
• Provide context where necessary.
• Clearly distinguish between what is fact and what is assertion or opinion.
• Make your own editorial judgments, based only on careful consideration of all
• Do not allow yourself to be influenced by political, sectional or commercial
• Declare and manage any conflicts of interest, including gifts, funding,
advertising relationships or free or discounted travel or services.
• Treat all facts the same, making editorial judgments and delivering analysis
based only on the weight of evidence.
• Do not allow your own views, preferences, biases or prejudgements to affect
your work. Set them aside.
• Do not simply recite lists of facts or engage in false balance: weigh the
evidence and reflect that weight of evidence in your work.
• Aim to include an appropriate diversity of views, and accord those views the
space that their prominence and significance warrants.
• Treat those you deal with in your work with respect and courtesy wherever
• Always identify yourself as a journalist, unless hiding that fact is unavoidable and essential to uncovering the truth in a matter of public importance.
• The use of any form of secret information gathering (hidden cameras, secret
recording devices, etc…) is only justifiable if it is unavoidable and essential to uncovering the truth in a matter of public importance.
• Provide anyone accused of misbehavior a reasonable opportunity to respond.
• Attribute information to its source unless that source needs to be protected to ensure the truth can be uncovered in a matter of public importance. Where a
source needs anonymity, provide it.
• Do not plagiarize.
• Do not use offensive, confronting or harm-inducing sounds, imagery or words
in your work gratuitously, but only where they are necessary to establish the
significance of a matter of public importance.
• Respect people’s reasonable rights to privacy unless they are outweighed by
the need to report on a matter of public importance.
• Be sensitive when dealing with children, or with people who are especially
vulnerable due to trauma, injury, illness or other factors.
• Your decisions on what work to do should be based on your understanding of
what is relevant and newsworthy to the community you serve.
• Establish links and two-way communications with the community.
• Seek input and ideas from the community before, during and after completing
• Seek and carefully consider the feedback you receive from the community
about your work.
• Investigate any complaints, particularly those relating to matters raised in
relation to these standards.
• Where errors or potentially incomplete or misleading information is found,
corrections or clarifications should be made promptly, prominently and
• Where no errors or incomplete or misleading information is found, your work
should not be altered or removed in any material way in response to pressure
from outside interests.
APPLYING THE STANDARDS IN PRACTICE
Consult this guide at every stage of your work to ensure you are considering and
following the best standards of public interest journalism.
Finding a story
The most important reason to cover any story is that it is relevant and newsworthy to
the community you serve.
Before you proceed with any story, these are the questions you need to ask yourself:
How do I know the community I am working on behalf of would find this story/issue/event relevant and newsworthy?
Sometimes you may have an opportunity, through research, use of social media or
even polling, to gain an insight into what is in the public interest for your community.
In other situations, it may be enough to simply rely on your own experience and
understanding of the community. But the important thing is to take the time to
assess the story and satisfy yourself that it is relevant and newsworthy.
• Am I being influenced by any outside vested interest in deciding to pursue this story?
There is no shortage of politicians, activists, commercial organizations or powerful individuals who want to put information (or disinformation or misinformation, for that matter) into the public domain to serve their own interests. Journalism is not in the business of serving those interests, so resist any attempts to cover a story in order to suit the aims of special groups or individuals.
• Are my own views and preferences interfering with my ability to cover a story fairly and impartially?
Before you ask hard questions of anyone else, ask them of yourself. What ‘baggage’ am I bringing to this issue? Do I have blind spots, settled perspectives or prejudices I haven’t been aware of or paid sufficient attention to? What am I assuming? Do I have strong views of my own that may color my ability to weigh the facts dispassionately?
Everyone has their own subjective views. The challenge for any good journalist is to be aware of them, allow for them, and make every effort to set them aside and report on the facts, weighing the evidence and presenting it fairly.
Preparing a story
Once you begin working on a story, you need to gather and assess information in a way that meets the best standards of journalism.
These are the questions you should ask yourself:
• Am I ensuring that all the information I gather is accurate?
As a reporter, your role is to search out and include all of the relevant facts. That means not relying on what you have heard second hand or what is included in a media release or something you have read online. It means directly chasing and
uncovering facts as far as possible, either by research or by directly witnessing events first hand. A fact is something that can be corroborated.
• Am I including all the material facts that are needed to understand the story?
Do not make the mistake of selecting only those facts which suit a certain argument or perspective. You must include all of the relevant facts and context. The narrative is drawn from the facts, rather than the other way round.
• Am I weighing up and scrutinizing the facts?
Journalists are not stenographers and they are not parrots. Journalism does not
involve simply collecting and regurgitating information. At the heart of journalism is an editorial process, whereby a journalist will weigh up and assess the information they gather, deciding what is important and what is not based on the weight of evidence.
• Am I keeping an open mind?
As you go about your work, it is worth reminding yourself again that you need, as far as possible, to set aside your own personal views on an issue and not allow them to color your news gathering.
• Am I seeking a wide range of views?
Journalism is not just about gathering facts. It is also about gathering perspectives.
You should apply equal scrutiny to all views, whether they are ones you feel a
personal affinity towards or not. Equal scrutiny does not mean equal time –
perspectives that are not factually accurate or do not stand up to proper scrutiny will not and should not be accorded the same weight as those that do.
• Who am I likely to offend or harm with this story, and could/should that be avoided?
The process of journalism can involve invading people’s privacy, asking intrusive or confronting questions, raising issues or uncovering facts which can be offensive, violent or upsetting, and interacting with people who are traumatized, grieving, unwell or vulnerable in myriad other ways.
By way of example, if your story is uncovering corruption or wrongdoing, then
confronting those accused may well cause them great offense or harm their families, friends, and supporters, but the significance of the story clearly justifies the offense.
But if you are covering a tragedy such as a cyclone or a wildfire, speaking
respectfully and carefully to survivors and victims can be an important part of
depicting the enormity and the consequences of the event, but care needs to be
taken to balance the need to illustrate the story with the need not to exacerbate the suffering or grief of those involved. If you are reporting an issue like animal cruelty or violent crime, powerful images exposing the behavior may be necessary to establish what is happening, but you may still need to carefully select the images and edit them to get the balance right between telling the story and causing undue offense to your own audience.
• Am I treating the sources in my story appropriately?
Ordinarily, you should transparently acknowledge that you are a journalist working on a story. There will be rare occasions where this is not appropriate. They include:
* Where a source comes to you with confidential information and wishes to
remain anonymous. The granting of anonymity should be the exception, not
the rule, and should only occur when the granting of anonymity is essential to
uncover the truth.
* Where you yourself need to operate discreetly or covertly in order to uncover
the truth. This could involve secret recording or filming, or seeking
information without first disclosing you are acting as a journalist. Once again,
this should be the exception rather than the rule, and should only occur when
a story is of significant public importance and the relevant information cannot
be gained any other way. This covert operating method should be
transparently disclosed once the story is published, broadcast or shared.
Publishing/broadcasting/sharing a story
Inevitably, when it comes time to write or record your work, decisions need to be made. Editing will take place for reasons of time, available space or clarity. It is essential that the integrity of the work is retained through this process.
These are the questions you should ask yourself:
• Has the editing process made the story inaccurate or unbalanced?
The most carefully researched piece of work can suffer when it is written and edited.
A journalist needs to retain oversight of their work throughout the editing process and ensure that any alterations or cuts do not undermine the fundamental accuracy of the story, or the proper representation of all relevant perspectives.
• Are the headlines, social media posts and all versions of the story true to the original version?
A headline should not mislead or undermine the essence of a story – they are often read by people who do not go on to read the full story. Similarly, shorter versions, excerpts or summaries of stories that are posted on social media or other platforms should not be inaccurate or misleading in the way that they summarise or select from the original story.
After the story
One of the key principles of journalism is to be accountable to the community you serve, and this is just as important after a story has been published as it is during the preparation of a story.
These are the questions you should ask yourself:
• Am I monitoring the reaction to my work to look for further information and new story ideas?
No matter how thorough your research, no journalist can know everything about a
topic. Engagement and feedback from the community in the wake of a story can
provide valuable new information, fresh leads and new story ideas.
• Do I have a transparent process to allow people to complain about my story?
Being accountable to and working on behalf of the community involves being open to criticism. Where that criticism involves allegations that any of the standards in this code have been breached, such complaints need to be carefully and honestly considered.
• Do I need to correct or clarify anything?
Infallible journalists are impossible to find, but the transparent acknowledgment and correction of errors where they occur is one of the most important ways of building trust with the community you are accountable to. If your work is inaccurate or deficient, correct it. If it is incomplete or potentially misleading, add clarification.
At all times, be transparent about what changes have been made, and why.
• Am I changing my story for the wrong reasons?
Stories can and should be changed if they are found to be in breach of this code, or if there are legitimate legal reasons for their alteration or removal. Apart from that, stories once published, broadcast or posted should not be changed in material ways due to pressure from vested interests who may be angry, embarrassed or distressed by the truth.
A final word on “opinion”
All of the ethical standards outlined above relate to factual reporting, where it is important for journalists to commit themselves to work accurately and impartially, setting aside their own views or any other partisan interests and weighing up the facts as fairly and objectively as possible.
Reporting the news includes fair and fact-based analysis, but it precludes journalists from inserting their own opinions without clearly flagging that.
Having said that, journalism can and does include the writing of opinion pieces, often in the form (for example) of regular columns or pieces of ‘editorializing’. Opinion can be included where it is clearly marked and where it does not interfere with or influence the reporting.
However, just because they are opinion pieces, it is common to assume that they are not bound by any of the usual ethical standards of journalism.
The common cry is “This is an opinion piece. It’s my opinion. I can write whatever I want.”
This is not the case. There is bad opinion writing and good opinion writing, and
journalists would do well to leave the bad opinion writing to someone else.
Bad opinion writing will misrepresent the facts, misrepresent the views of others, mislead in the way it draws conclusions and use inflammatory or intemperate language to whip up emotion and cloud the ability of readers to make their own judgments.
A journalist who writes an opinion piece is given the license to provide their own views and selectively highlight the evidence, issues or facts that they personally consider to be the most significant and the most telling. But an ethical journalist who writes an opinion piece will still ensure the piece has integrity.
When contributing an opinion article, these are the questions you should ask
• Is everything that I have presented in my opinion piece as a ‘fact’ accurate?
• Have I transparently declared any conflicts of interest or vested interests I
may have in relation to the issue I am expressing an opinion on?
• Have I considered any undue harm or offense my work may cause, and looked
for ways to minimize it where that does not undermine the integrity of the
• Have I favored sound argument and evidence over rhetoric and bombast in the
way the work is constructed?
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