York Daily Record/Sunday News Online Ethics Guidelines
The York Daily Record/Sunday News’ vigorous and growing presence online brings with it ethical challenges that print journalism doesn’t. We’ve addressed many of them here. This document doesn’t cover every situation, nor does it, in most cases, dictate rules that must always be adhered to.
Rather, it sets out guidelines to help us make decisions as we deal with our online world, be it the news site, the blogs, forums, social networking sites and more.
Our approach to style, tone and content online may differ from much of what we do in print. But our goal must be that our content upholds the York Daily Record/Sunday News’ standards for accuracy, credibility and accountability.
Who we are online
We carry our core journalistic values — accuracy, fairness, ethics — with us from the print York Daily Record/Sunday News to our Web site. We should apply the same standards for news and feature stories, photos, graphics and other traditional content both in print and online.
But we’re out there on the Web in ways that don’t have a direct corollary to print. And we can talk to and with readers in ways we couldn’t before. So we have to figure out how our journalistic values translate to this new, immediate, less formal world of blogs, forums and social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
On those platforms, we are building personality, encouraging the reader to know a journalist as a person in relation to the representative of an institution (The York Daily Record/Sunday News). On a blog, for example, it’s expected you would use first person; the news judgment is more personal; the tone is more conversational as opposed to straight reporting.
Basically: On these other platforms, it’s more a stylistic difference than an ethical difference. Keep your bedrock journalistic standards while acknowledging you’re talking to a different audience in a different way.
What’s our process for staff posts on blogs?
Have peer monitoring/editing. It’s not necessary that an editor read every blog post, but work through an editor to find a peer who can in order to help catch basic stuff. Bring an editor into the picture if what you are posting is sensitive, or close to the line between opinion and straight reporting.
Ethical issues online
Reporting breaking news stories
We want to be first with news on the web, but we do not want to rush information onto the web before it’s ready simply to be first. Verify facts as you normally would. The idea is to get information to people quickly, but to make sure it’s right so we don’t have to undo it later. Clearly, rushing information onto the web that has to be corrected later is a disservice to the people we’re trying to keep informed.
It’s important to remember that because the internet is fluid and constantly changing — and because online readers know to expect it to change and be updated — we can post to the web facts as they become available to us, as opposed to waiting until we have what we would consider a full, complete story for the next day’s paper.
At a breaking news scene, we will assess information based on the source, the situation and the reporter’s on-scene observations. We may choose to use information that we haven’t verified or that we haven’t corroborated. For example, at a fire, one person tells us that they saw a person toss a baby out the window and then jump out; or, at a crash scene, TV reports that two people died. In those cases, we should work to corroborate the information with a second source, and/or verify the information with authorities, as quickly as possible. We should also report that the information is not yet verified and/or that we’re working to verify it.
There are some things we’ll do on the web that we wouldn’t necessarily do in the newspaper. For example:
We might report that fire fighters have been dispatched somewhere (in essence, reporting something is happening before we know whether there is actually a fire). Use caution, however, because often scanner calls are wrong. For example, when dispatchers sent equipment to a ‘plane crash’ near the Jewish Community Center, we decided to wait for confirmation before posting anything on the web. It turned out there was no plane crash.
When we are doing continuous updates on stories — let’s say, a school bus accident — we may not corroborate eyewitness accounts as we might when working a story for print. However, it’s important to note that if there is any doubt about an eyewitness account, we should hold off on putting it on the web until it can be corroborated.
What are our standards for reporting on these other platforms? What are our standards for blog posts from news staffers containing opinion?
A staffer should not post opinions on topics or institutions or stories he or she is covering. We should carefully assess whether blogs (or posts within blogs) maintain our editorial independence from people, issues and institutions that we cover. Do blog on topics you’re an expert on (including your beat), but use the same standards for independence that you’d apply to your work in the paper. Err on the side of full disclosure of any affiliation that might call independence into question.
Blogs are different from news stories, and even the blogs differ among themselves. A news-based blog, such as the business blog, generally should meet the YDR/YSN or ydr.com standards. Write to engage with the reader, and less formally than you would in the paper, but refrain from opinion. Other blogs, such those by a columnist, have more leeway for opinion.
On blogs that more readily welcome opinion, or thrive on it, we might post something simply to start water-cooler talk, for example, like a rumor about a Hollywood couple on the Flipside blog. To make sure those posts meet our standards, ask: What’s the reason for the post? What are the consequences to us, to a reader, to the subject of the post if we’re wrong? As always, attribution and clarity will help.
A blogger may review products as a blog entry, but should clearly disclose how we got the products and what we plan to do with them (employee auction for charity).
Is profanity/vulgarity more acceptable on these informal platforms? In videos?
Consider the standards in place now for YDR/SN and ydr.com, but understand that some niche audiences will be OK with a more permissive standard. If in doubt, ask an editor. Above all, do no harm to your credibility as a journalist.
Can we link to outside sites from our Web site?
Yes, it’s OK to do this, and even encouraged, because it helps search engines recognize the site. Make a reasonable effort to link to trustworthy Web sites, and consider whether you’re linking to a site that contains offensive material. Be sensitive to the intellectual property rights of others when using third-party content, for example, in blog posts. Use only as much of someone else’s work as is necessary, and then send your reader to the other site. Using a paragraph or two of another site’s content and then linking to that site is generally considered OK; re-posting the bulk of someone else’s blog post or story is not.
Can we cross-post links and/or teasers on sites such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc.?
Yes, it’s encouraged, so you can reach more people with your story and perhaps discover new sources or connections to help in your reporting.
How do we correct wrong information in a blog post?
First, get the right information in the actual post itself. Then let readers know in some way that a correction has been made; for example, at the end of the blog post, you can write a sentence in italics to indicate that the post has been corrected.
Can we use information on someone’s Facebook or Myspace page as source material for stories?
Use quotes or messages as lead or tip, not as a primary source. If we use photo or text off a social networking site, we must confirm the authenticity of the post or photo through reporting. Paraphrasing to describe a trend is OK; for example, “There were 100 messages of condolences on his Myspace page.” If you have concerns about content, including possible copyright or privacy issues, see an editor.
Be sure to know the site’s terms of service and copyright issues as you work to confirm information; some sites do not allow material to be reproduced. With regard to our forums, our terms of service say we can use whatever we want.
It’s OK to take basic information, for example, tour dates, off a band’s Facebook page if it is considered the band’s official page.
How do you verify a person is who they say they are on a social networking site?
Find the person, or credible sources who know the person, to confirm it is their page and that the information is valid.
When people create online (anonymous) personalities on our platforms, do we have a responsibility to police comments that are made by others using that personality’s name? What is our responsibility to protect the integrity of anonymous online personalities?
No legal responsibility for defamation in third-party comments. It’s in the terms and conditions, as well as the Communications Decency Act of 1996. The First Amendment center cites four court cases, including one in Pa., in which courts have held that the publisher of a website on which comments appear can’t be held liable for the content of those comments. In one, the California Supreme Court wrote, “Until Congress chooses to revise the settled law in this area, however, plaintiffs who contend they were defamed in an Internet posting may only seek recovery from the original source of the statement.” Learn more about online libel here. If you have concerns that a poster has violated someone’s intellectual property rights, see an editor.
The YDR/YSN encourages civil conversation and on-topic debate, and urges commenters to avoid abusive comments, personal attacks and profanity.
FAQs for staff to respond to questions about our comments section:
1. What do we mean by civil conversation?
Comments should be relevant to the story under which they appear. Spirited debate is encouraged, but treat others with respect.
2. Why does the YDR/YSN have commenting on stories?
To allow people to express opinions and have a conversation about stories on the web site. We recommend that people flag comments that are offensive, not ones they simply disagree with.
3. What if I see an error or have concerns about news coverage?
We want to hear from you. The best way to reach us is to call or e-mail the reporter who wrote the story. You can also call 771-2000 or email email@example.com, or find the right person on our contacts page.
Live blogging and chats
Staffers may not participate in YDR live blogging or chats unless clearly identified as a YDR staffer.
We will link from the home page to a corrections file.
The corrections file will be a feed of links to corrected stories, and we’ll set it to drop older stories regularly. The corrections on stories will be permanent.
The editor who worked with the story would handle the correction by putting the right information in the story; noting the correction on the story itself (see style below); and adding the corrected story to a group in dashboard called “corrected articles.” The editor handling the correction will follow the same verification procedures as are in place now. Flag an editor if a correction deals with sensitive information.
Suggested wording for the home page corrections file (this would be text next to or underneath the link to the corrections file):
How we handle corrections: The York Daily Record/Sunday News wants to correct mistakes promptly. If you believe we have made a mistake, please call 717-771-2000 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction style at end of story
This story originally contained incorrect information. (Correct info goes here.) (story would have already been changed to reflect correct information).
(Also acceptable is something like, ‘The date of the event has been corrected from an earlier version of this story.’)
Threshhold for online corrections
The fluid nature of the web means readers expect information to be changing and regularly updated. So, for example, if in an evolving story about a city fire we first put online that 10 people were displaced and later change it to 11 based on new information, we don’t believe that warrants a correction. The threshold for what merits a correction online is:
The mistake fundamentally alters a reader’s understanding of a story, such as, but not necessarily limited to:
misidentification of person or place
incorrect criminal charges
significant numerical errors
dates/times of an event
contact information (phone numbers, e-mail addresses, etc.)
The mistake has existed online through one of the three major spikes in website activity – roughly 8 a.m., noon, and between 4:30 p.m.-5 p.m.
Example: We say, ‘For details, call John Smith at 888-8888’ in a story posted at 9 a.m. An hour later, we find out it should say Jack Smith at 999-9999. In that case, we simply changed the online story and do not post a correction. But if we discover the mistake at 2 p.m., we make the story right and publish an online correction, because the information has been exposed to a spike in Web users at/around noon.
As always, these are guidelines and not absolutes, and news judgment will play a key role in making these calls.
Increase/improve our transparency by:
Modifying the ‘About the blog’ blurb to tell people that this is a news blog, or entertainment, or opinion, and touch on what the ground rules are.
Where appropriate, label repurposed blog posts (i.e., those we publish in the YDR/SN) as news commentary or some such, again to be transparent in telling people where the information is coming from and how it is intended to be presented.
Create a disclaimer page that defines a blog, forum, commenting, ydr.com, etc. This kind of transparency can help the reader navigate our offerings.
How far do we go in posting online what we’re working on (for example, asking for sources)? Should reporters share what you’re working on? Should a reporter help another reporter, or maintain the competitive aspect of the business?
Be guarded, knowing the competition can see what you’re sharing. However, use social networking sites if they can help you discover/reach sources.
Don’t give out sources or phone numbers to competition.
Don’t specifically work with other competing reporters on stories (for example, collaborating through a social networking site about finding sources).
Be careful about posting anything online that may undermine your credibility.
Should staffers be friends with sources on Facebook or other social networking sites?
It’s OK if you want to have sources, or potential sources, as online “friends.” However, you should make it clear to them that if they post something you consider newsworthy, you may act on that information. That leaves the choice up to them and makes the ground rules of your online “friendship” clear.
What guidelines should staffers follow when posting personal information to social networking sites?
Staffers should participate in their communities – including online communities – but be aware that your public personality will reflect on your role as an independent journalist and on the Daily Record/Sunday News. Understand that when you post your status or link to a story or personalize your page, you may be revealing things about yourself that could compromise your independence and credibility, or the paper’s. Act professionally. Avoid posting opinions on topics or subjects you cover; avoid joining groups advocating for political, social or other issues that you may have a role in covering for the newspaper, or that YDR/SN is covering. People may use the opportunity to attack you or the paper.
Breaking news photos should be assessed just as breaking news stories are. We want to be first with a visual from the scene, but do not want to rush a photo onto the web if there are questions about the facts it reveals, audience sensitivity, or other matters.
Credit when using images on blogs
Try to find your image at AP Exchange, a .gov site or on a Creative Commons site (part of Flickr has Creative Commons license photos, for example).
If the art is clearly original or exclusive – it belongs to another newspaper, or a private citizen, for example – we need to contact the originator of the photo for permission, and credit that person. If we’re not sure, err on the side of getting permission and giving credit. The credit should appear as it would in the paper (in small type under the photo) or in the body of the post. If in doubt, link to the site where you found the photo.
In cases of mug shots and other non-original/exclusive art, it’s OK to post.
Discuss with AME/visuals or visual editor if the only option appears to be using art without getting permission, or if you’re in doubt about whether to credit the photo.
Things that are OK to take without permission are AP photos; any government site photos; anything from a media page of a business or PR Web site; anything that is obviously the standard hand-out photo or headshot of a person and is now wide-spread online; standard product shots such as CD covers and video game covers. If in doubt, ask a photo department editor.
Don’t post what you know to be copyrighted video (such as TV shows) you find on YouTube or other video sites, and don’t link to pirated videos. If sites have embed codes for their videos (for example, network sites, hulu.com), feel free to use that. It’s OK to link out to other credible or reputable sites.
If you’re pulling a shot from a website – for example, a Facebook page – you need to make absolutely sure the person in the photo is the right person. If you have concerns about intellectual property or privacy, discuss with an editor.
We subscribe to the National Press Photographers Association’s code of ethics, which were created for still-photojournalists but can be adapted to apply to shooting video. The basic premise is: Don’t create a visual lie. “While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events,” the NPPA guidelines read. “Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.”
So: no coaching, no setups, no recreating B-roll, and so on.
Streaming video – What if someone we’re filming live starts cussing? Are we answerable to the FCC? No, because the FCC governs over-the-air and cable broadcasting, not live streaming video. However, we should develop a plan each time we shoot video to have someone in the office who can shut it down if we find ourselves streaming offensive or undesirable behavior. The bar should be set very high when judging whether to shut off a live video feed.
Video produced in-house
Producing our own video allows us to treat subjects with more informality than we would in the pages of the newspaper. It basically creates visual columnists out of reporters and/or editors. However, we should adhere to the newspaper’s standards concerning libel and invasion of privacy.
If you wouldn’t print something for lack of sourcing, or because it’s potentially libelous or potentially an invasion of someone’s privacy, then don’t say it while taping your video. If in doubt, discuss with an editor.
Advertising and online editorial content
The newsroom and advertising are working more closely than ever, particularly concerning online content. That means the newsroom must stay vigilant not to allow the lines between advertising and editorial content to blur.
Because blogs draw specialized audiences, advertisers may seek consistent ad positions on specific pages of content that relates to their business. Care must be taken that these ads are not seen as “sponsoring” content. Language in the ad should not imply control or influence by the advertiser over the content of the page. Perception is important.
Community blogs and advertiser blogs: We separate our community blogs from our staff-written blogs with language that makes it clear they are not affiliated with the YDR/SN. If we develop advertiser blogs, we should use similar language that makes it clear the blogs are paid for and produced by advertisers and that the YDR/SN has nothing to do with the content.