Houston Chronicle: Newsroom Ethics Policy

“The publication of a newspaper is a distinct public trust and not to be treated lightly or abused for selfish purposes or to gratify selfish whims. A great newspaper can remain a power for good only so long as it is uninfluenced by unworthy motives and unbought by the desire for gain.” — Jesse H. Jones, publisher, Houston Chronicle, 1956-1966.

This statement, engraved near the entrance to the Houston Chronicle building, remains a viable standard for journalists. A newspaper's credibility is built on trust. To earn the public's trust, journalists must strive to be accurate, objective, fair and ethical.

In an effort to offer guidance to its staff, the Chronicle has established policies for the conduct of Editorial Department employees. While no set of guidelines could cover every conceivable issue, it is hoped that situations not explicitly addressed by these rules are resolved in the spirit of fostering the public's confidence in the integrity of the Chronicle.

Any deviation from these guidelines must be approved in advance by the executive editor, managing editor or a deputy managing editor.

A. Fairness and corrections:

In non-opinion material, strive to tell all sides of the story. Look for articulate views from every perspective. Try to explain contrasting views on a topic instead of using easy sound bites to provide “balance.” Try to avoid going back to the same spokesman again and again for comment. In some situations, there are a limited number of sources with the knowledge to comment on an esoteric topic. Still, when possible, we should seek out a diversity of voices.

People who are going to be criticized or portrayed in a negative manner in an article must be given sufficient information, time and space to respond.

Mistakes are inevitable in the production of a daily newspaper. Be open to requests for corrections. No staffer should make a decision in isolation about whether a correction is warranted. If you receive information about a potential mistake in the newspaper, immediately inform your supervisor. Any factual error should be corrected as quickly as possible. We should be consistent in placing corrections and clarifications on page A2 whenever possible, although columnists should include corrections at the end of their space.

B. Plagiarism:

According to Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, to plagiarize is “to take (ideas, writings, etc.) from another and pass them off as one's own.”

Plagiarism is one of the most serious lapses in ethical conduct among journalists. It undermines our credibility with readers and with our colleagues. Plagiarism is strictly prohibited.

If material is used from another writer, news organization or wire service, it should be attributed to that source. If you use a blanket attribution, such as “from wire reports,” “staff and wire reports” or “chronicle news services,” also include more specific attribution within the story or at the end.

Material that is used from press releases or Web sites should be attributed to those sources.

Even if credit is given, if you use an author's exact words, they must be marked as a quotation.

The use of material from previous staff-written stories published in the Chronicle as background information without attribution is acceptable. Heavy reliance on previously reported material should be attributed, for example, “as previously reported in the Houston Chronicle.”

C. Fabrication:

The deliberate introduction of false information into the Chronicle is prohibited. This includes, but is not limited to, falsifying quotes or the identities of sources. The creation and use of composite characters or pseudonyms also is prohibited.

D. Datelines:

A dateline is used to indicate the location of the primary author of a story and where most of the material for a story was gathered.

Do not use datelines on stories reported from within Harris County.

If combining material from a wire service or other news organization with staff material, remove the dateline and explain within the article, or in a shirttail, who reported from where.

The practice of reporting the majority of the material for a story from one location and traveling to another location primarily to establish a dateline from there is misleading to the reader and should be avoided.

E. Deception:

Reporters, editors and other news professionals should not misrepresent their identities in order to gather information for a story.

If, in an emergency situation, you must avoid identifying yourself for reasons of personal safety, inform your supervisor as soon as possible.

On rare occasion, a journalist might feel that an undercover investigation is justified. Any decision to undertake an undercover investigation must be approved by the Editor.

In Texas, taping a phone call is legal with the approval of one party to the conversation. Even so, in most situations, it is advisable to let the other party know that you are taping the call.

F. Payment for information:

It is contrary to Chronicle policy to pay sources for information or access.

Buying a cup of coffee, meal or a similar token courtesy for a source does not constitute paying for information.

G. Obey the law:

Staffers are expected to abide by the law in gathering information for publication.

For example, do not knowingly trespass on private property when gathering or photographing material for publication.

At a crime scene or in other emergency situations, follow the instructions of law-enforcement personnel.

H. Conflicts:

Do not attempt to profit financially from information you obtained by reporting or in the course of your employment with the Chronicle.

Staffers who own stock or any financial interest in any company or other entity they are assigned to cover should disclose that interest to their supervisor and offer to recuse themselves from any such coverage. The supervisor should make a determination as to whether a recusal is necessary. A staffer is less likely to have a conflict if the company stock is owned through a mutual fund under the control of an independent fund manager.

In the course of your employment, you may become aware of confidential strategic information or trade secrets pertaining to the Chronicle. Keep it private.

Do not become involved in groups or activities that are covered by the newspaper or that are likely to be covered. Do not serve or participate in government or partisan organizations.

Do not contribute to political candidates or partisan causes. Such contributions are often subject to disclosure laws and can cast doubts on a journalist's objectivity.

Pins, T-shirts, bumper stickers and other items used to express partisan personal opinions can also raise questions about your neutrality as a journalist. Avoid them.

Nonpartisan expressions of opinion, such as statements in support of the First Amendment or literacy, are allowable. If in doubt, talk to your editor.

Staffers in a position to cover any individual related to them by blood or marriage or others with whom they have a close personal or financial relationship should disclose the relationship to their supervisor. The supervisor should make a determination whether there is cause for concern about a conflict or appearance of a conflict.

Do not use your position with the newspaper to obtain any personal advantage. For example, do not tell someone you are with the Chronicle in an attempt to reach a favorable resolution of a consumer dispute. This does not preclude a staffer from providing employment information where required, such as in the case of applying for a loan or apartment lease.

I. Gifts:

In general, we do not accept gifts from those we cover. Exceptions include items of trivial value, such as a pen, or engaging in traditional practices such as accepting a business meal when it would be awkward to refuse. In the case of business meals, try to reciprocate whenever possible.

J. Freebies and review items:

Items of insignificant value received for review that would be impractical to return, such as books, CDs or DVDs, may be kept or shared with other staff members. Items of significant value, such as electronic equipment, must be returned, or, if doing so is not practical, donated to charity.

In general, items worth more than $50 should be returned or donated to charity. Staffers should not attempt to sell or otherwise make a profit from review items.

In many cases, it is standard industry practice to provide reviewers free tickets to a show or concert. With the permission of an editor, a Chronicle staffer reviewing a performance or covering a sports event may accept two free tickets to the event, one for the reviewer and one for a guest.

Staffers who are not reviewing a performance or accompanying a reviewer should not accept free tickets to an event. However, this policy does not apply to “Media Day” or open house type events, as such events are typically designed for the media and do not deprive the public of any benefit.

A restaurant critic should always attempt to be anonymous and should pay for all meals.

Clothes, shoes, jewelry and other items borrowed for Lifestyle, Fashion or other photo shoots should be returned after use.

Sportswriters and other staffers should not accept free club memberships or reduced fees for memberships, nor should they accept free use of facilities, such as golf courses or tennis courts, even if planning a story about the facility. The cost of using a facility that is the basis of a story should be submitted for reimbursement as a legitimate business expense.

K. Travel:

Travel expenses should be paid by the Chronicle. We don't accept junkets. If a staffer is assigned to cover an inaugural flight, hotel opening, cruise or other press excursion, we should ask for and pay a fair rate for the travel.

In a case such as flying on the team plane in sports or a candidate's plane in politics, we should pay the shared or pro-rata cost of the flight.

An exception to this rule is in a situation where the only access to an area is to travel with government officials or the military, such as to a war zone, a disaster zone or on a hurricane-hunter plane. In such cases, staffers can accept transportation with the prior approval of a supervising editor.

Another exception is travel to an educational or industry conference, with the prior approval of a supervising editor.

L. Awards:

Staffers should receive permission from their supervisors before entering their work in a contest or before accepting an award.

Only contests whose central purpose is to recognize journalistic excellence and that are judged by journalism professionals should be entered.

Contests that exist primarily to publicize or further the cause of the organization sponsoring the contest should be avoided.

A reporter or editor should never accept an award from an industry, association or organization he or she covers. However, this would not preclude a staffer from politely refusing an award but attending an organization's ceremony for the purpose of networking or source development.

M. Fellowships, etc:

Staffers should obtain permission from their supervisors before applying for a fellowship or scholarship program.

Applications for such programs will be considered on a case by case basis, depending on the needs of the newspaper at the time.

N. Freelance:

The primary duty of any Chronicle employee is to the newspaper.

Staffers must obtain approval of a supervising editor before accepting any freelance assignment. Freelance work must be done on your own time and without interfering with your job responsibilities with the Chronicle.

Before proposing an assignment for another publication, staffers must first offer to do the assignment for the Chronicle.

O. Moonlighting:

Some outside jobs, such as appearing on radio or television shows, are allowed and encouraged because they serve to promote the Chronicle brand.

Permission must be obtained from a supervising editor before accepting an invitation to appear on another medium.

Staffers should take care to ensure that working in such a capacity for another news organization does not interfere with their primary jobs at the Chronicle.

Staffers should not work for people or organizations they cover or who are regular subjects of the paper's coverage.

P. Endorsements:

Staffers are not allowed to endorse any commercial product.

Q. Blogs

Chronicle staffers should take care in deciding to initiate or contribute to a Web log. Any information posted on the Internet, including a reply or comment to a blog, is information available to the public at large. Avoid posting anything on the Internet that could call into question your objectivity as a journalist or reflect unfavorably upon the Chronicle. Of course, there are many topics of personal interest, such as family histories or hobbies such as gardening or stamp collecting, that would be unlikely to create a conflict with your role as a journalist. If you have any question about whether a blog topic is likely to create a conflict, check with your supervisor.

Participation in a Web log may be prohibited at any time if a supervising editor believes the staffer's participation no longer serves the best interests of the Chronicle.

In addition, staffers are urged to exercise caution in all electronic correspondence, as advancements in technology have made it far easier to distribute an ill-advised remark to the public. For example, an angry email response to a complaining reader or “anonymous” comment to a critic's blog can be posted to a public forum with very little effort.

R. Speaking engagements

Journalists are often invited to appear on radio or TV shows, or to speak to groups. You must obtain permission from your supervisor before agreeing to appear in any such venue.

Consider the purpose of the event and how your participation might be perceived. Avoid situations in which your participation could be construed as an endorsement of the sponsoring organization's or its interests.

Check with your editor before accepting any honoraria or other remuneration for speaking or appearing on a panel.

Staff members should be careful during such appearances not to make comments that stray beyond what they would write in the newspaper.

S. Photographs and graphics

Photographs and graphics should be informative and accurate. Do not attempt to mislead the reader or misrepresent visual information.

In photographing news, do not stage or reenact events.

Photographers may direct subjects of portraits, fashion shoots or studio work. Avoid creating the impression that they were captured spontaneously.

Do not add color, create photomontages, remove objects or flop images in news photos........ Do not digitally alter images beyond making minor adjustments for color correction, exposure correction and removal of dust spots or scratches required to ensure faithful reproduction of the original image. Exaggerated use of burning, dodging or color saturation is not permitted.

The guidelines for fair and accurate reporting should be the criteria for judging what may be done electronically to a photograph.

On occasion, in special sections or feature publications, the altering of photographs is permitted. Altered images should be clearly labeled “photo illustration.” Before altering a photo, approval must be obtained from an editor and the director of photography.

Altered photos or illustrations used in graphics should be similarly labeled.

On occasion, the use of handout photos is necessary. Credit lines should identify the source of such photographs whenever possible.

T. Granting anonymity

The Houston Chronicle will use anonymously sourced material only after reasoned consideration of the following guidelines:

Is the information of a significant public interest?

Is there reason to believe it is reliable?

Is it simply an attack on or demeaning statement about a person or institution?

Does the source have a legitimate reason for wanting to remain anonymous?

Have all efforts to obtain the information through alternative avenues been exhausted?

A decision on whether to use an unidentified source should be made by a senior editor, more specifically, at the assistant managing editor level or higher.

The senior editor on duty or on call must be told the identity of the source and approve the way the anonymously sourced material is used.

If it is determined that an unidentified source will be used, reporters and editors should take every precaution to ensure that the name of the source remains confidential. Avoid committing the name to writing, including emails to staffers within the building.

The reason for granting anonymity to a source should be explained in the story and the source described as fully as possible to indicate credibility, while still protecting his or her identity.

The possibility exists that a court may demand to know a source's identity, forcing the reporter to choose between unmasking the source and going to jail for contempt of court. Reporters should be aware of and carefully weigh the risks before recommending that a source be promised anonymity.

In extreme cases, the newspaper may be unable to resist a court's order to divulge the identity of a source. A reporter should make the source aware that such a possibility exists.

In rare cases, a source granted anonymity may knowingly provide the newspaper with false information. In this situation, any decision to rescind the promise of anonymity to a source should be made by the senior editor on duty or on call.

Applying the policy

Guidelines for reporters on interviews:

First, make it clear that you are a reporter. This puts your conversation on the record, which means the information you receive from a source can be used in the newspaper and is attributable to that source by name.

While most interviews can and should be conducted entirely on the record, sometimes it is necessary to consider other options. Most non-journalists _ both sources and readers _ are unfamiliar with newspaper terminology. So for the sake of clarity, avoid the use of phrases such as “off the record,” “not for attribution” and “on background.” Instead, make sure in plain English the source understands what he or she is agreeing to, what information you can use and in what manner.

Guidelines for editors:

Ensure that your reporter understands the preceding rules. Have him tell you the identity of any source he wants to grant confidentiality. Before deciding to allow a reporter to write using such sourcing, consider the following:

The information: How essential is the information to the public's understanding of a significant issue? How can you help the reporter get the information on the record, either by using an identifiable source or by reporting factual material in another way?

The source: Does the source have a legitimate reason for wishing to be shielded? Could significant harm come to the person if his or her identity is revealed?

The reason: Could the source have a motive? Is he or she making a character attack, accusation or unsubstantiated generalization that might defame or vilify another person, place or institution?

If the situation meets this standard, ask a senior editor for approval, mark the reference approved in notes mode, and include who made the call.

Some do's and don'ts for writing and editing:

Do not refer to “sources” when you have just one off-the-record source.

Do not refer to a source named elsewhere in a story as a confidential source later in the story.

Do reveal as much as you can about the confidential source, by occupation, for example without revealing the identity. Provide the reason for granting anonymity if it is not obvious.

Do not use broad references such as “informed sources said,” when a more specific identifier would better reflect the credibility of the source.

Do not use anonymous sources in routine stories or quote people whose names you failed to get during an interview.

Guidelines for copy editors:

Flag each unapproved use of anonymously sourced material to your supervisor or the senior editor on duty. If confidential sourcing has been marked approved but appears to violate Chronicle policy, discuss the matter with your supervisor.


This ethics policy was formulated with the inspiration and help of material from a variety of sources, including the American Society of Newspaper Editors, The Dallas Morning News, Hearst Newspapers, Los Angeles Times, The Kansas City Star, San Antonio Express-News, San Francisco Chronicle, The Seattle Times and The Washington Post.