Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel: Editorial Code of Ethics

Journalists' obligation to serve the public by pursuing and reporting the truth independently is more than a lofty principle — it is the very foundation of our daily work. Our success as a news organization depends absolutely on our credibility, which we maintain by gathering and presenting the news vigorously; by making decisions that are as free as possible of influence from self-interest or special interests; and by conducting ourselves in ways that earn the trust of our community.

This Editorial Code of Ethics for the Orlando Sentinel, incorporating Tribune Publishing's Code of Editorial Principles, can help to safeguard our credibility. It applies to all Editorial staff members, including those in administrative or clerical roles. By following its guidelines and openly discussing ethical issues as they emerge, each of us can take responsibility for protecting the Sentinel's reputation as a reliable and trustworthy source of information.

1. Conflicts of Interest

Memberships. Editorial staffers should not have membership in, any financial relationship with, or other ties to a business or institution if they have regular and continuing influence over any aspect of coverage of the organization. They should avoid situations in which their activities in connection with any group or cause could be perceived as influencing what the Sentinel publishes or broadcasts.

Political activities. Political organizations present particular challenges. Donor lists are public information, so there are no “private” donations to a party or cause. For that reason — and because it would be impractical to police exceptions — no Editorial staffer, whether involved in political coverage or not, may donate to or be affiliated in way with such groups.

Family and personal relationships. Editorial staffers should avoid involvement in stories dealing with family members and close friends and the businesses or causes in which they take part.

Investments. Reporters, columnists and editorial writers should not write about companies or industries in which they or their family members have an investment, nor should they invest in companies or industries about which they report or write regularly. Similarly, editors should not make news decisions about companies or industries in which they or their family members have an investment. When recusing themselves is impractical, they should ask another editor to review their decisions. Editorial staffers may invest in mutual funds if the funds are not limited to the industries about which they make news decisions. In no case should financial information being gathered for publication be used for personal gain.

Gifts and meals. No Editorial staffer should accept any gift or discount of material value offered because of the employee's journalistic responsibilities. This includes promotional items, meals, and tickets to theme parks and shows. Gifts arriving by mail should be returned with a note of explanation. Staffers may accept a cup of coffee or an inexpensive lunch from a source, however, provided that the staffer can return the favor. A reporter covering a banquet or similar event may accept a free soft drink or an hors d'oeuvre but should arrange to pay for a meal. Reporters covering a news conference where food is served should use their best judgment. If there is no way to pay for the meal at the time, the reporter should attempt to pay for it later.

Admission to events. Staffers may accept free admission to events they are assigned to cover but should never insist on free entry; the company will reimburse them for ticket charges. Working journalists also may accept passes to special facilities, such as press boxes or press tables, for which tickets are not sold. Staffers who are not covering an event should not accept tickets from publicists even if they pay for them because doing so can create the appearance of special treatment.

Review copies. Books, CDs, DVDs, video games, software and similar products sent to the Sentinel for review are considered news handouts. They may be used by beat writers for review or for office reference. Those not kept for these purposes should be donated to libraries or to charitable organizations, not added to staffers' personal collections.

Personal gain. Editorial staffers must not use their job titles, professional connections, business cards or letterhead for personal advantage, whether to obtain tickets to a show, settle a dispute or obtain a price break. Discounts made available by the company to all employees may be accepted, however, because they are widely available to employees of large companies.

Confidential information. Staff members have access to information that must be held in confidence to prevent other news organizations from beating the Sentinel on a story or to otherwise protect the company's interests. Confidential information may include such things as notes and other research material; unpublished stories, editorials and images; the names of anonymous sources; preprinted advertising; and personnel or financial information. In general, company business should not be discussed with outsiders unless it is necessary for the performance of the job, and discretion should be used in sharing information within the company. Reporters may, of course, discuss information gathered for a story in order to verify it or to get reaction from other sources.

Contests and awards. Staffers should not enter contests sponsored by trade or advocacy groups — even if those contests are administered by a journalism organization or school — because they may exist primarily to promote those groups' agendas. The Editorial Department maintains a list of approved national, regional and state contests whose central purpose is to recognize journalistic excellence. Staffers who want to enter contests not on the list must first obtain the permission of the Managing Editor or Editorial Page Editor. Staff members also should refrain from accepting unsolicited awards from trade or advocacy organizations.

Disclosure of conflicts. When conflicts of interest are unavoidable but not obvious to readers, they should be disclosed in the story. The Sentinel should cover its own businesses and its parent company as it would any other business, but in stories about the finances of Tribune Co., for example, a sentence explaining that Tribune owns the Sentinel should be included.

Collaboration with Advertising. It is appropriate for the Editorial and Advertising departments to work together to build audiences and, by extension, the company's financial strength, but never in a way that would give advertisers an opportunity to influence news coverage. Editors also may work with marketing, circulation or other departments to improve the newspaper's business, but they should never do anything that could jeopardize the integrity of the news report.

Legal troubles of staff members. The Sentinel should report on the legal troubles of its own employees promptly and fairly, using the same standards of newsworthiness applied to others. There should never be the suggestion of a cover-up to keep the spotlight off a Sentinel staff member who is charged with a crime when it would have been focused on others in similar circumstances.

2. Outside Activities

Ownership of work. All ideas, research, notes and other work that staffers produce on company time, whether text or images, belong to the company. This material may not be sold to another publication or news service without permission of the Editor or the Editorial Page Editor. Syndication of work or the publication of books based on information gathered on Sentinel time also must be approved in advance by the Editor or Editorial Page Editor.

Freelancing. Staffers may perform freelance work on their own time, provided that the Sentinel receives their first and best efforts. Staffers should consider only media that exhibit high journalistic standards. Freelance assignments must be individually approved in advance by the Managing Editor or Editorial Page Editor, and several basic criteria must be met before approval will be considered. The proposed freelance assignment must not:


  • Appear in any medium that competes directly with any Orlando Sentinel Communications or Tribune Co. business.
  • Allow another news outlet to “scoop” the Sentinel.
  • Be published or broadcast by any organization that the journalist covers or one that has the Sentinel as its client for that particular project.
  • Interfere with the staffer's Sentinel duties, create the appearance of a conflict of interest or compromise the staffer's professional reputation.


Staffers who pursue approved freelance assignments should keep their freelancing separate from their Sentinel work, and sources should be clearly told for whom the work is being done.

Television and radio appearances. Because the Sentinel produces broadcast programming in partnership with television and radio stations, appearances in all non-Sentinel programs must be approved in advance by the Managing Editor or Editorial Page Editor. Broadcast appearances must meet the freelancing criteria found above. In addition, editors will consider the promotional value that the appearance may have for the Sentinel.

Personal Web publishing. Staffers who operate their own Web sites or publish personal blogs must not post information on topics they cover for the Sentinel. They also should be mindful that their personal postings can affect their credibility as journalists and, by extension, the Sentinel's credibility as a news organization. Thus, they should avoid postings that reveal personal biases or that otherwise compromise their professionalism.

3. Accuracy and Integrity

Breaking the law. Editorial staffers will not engage in illegal activities in pursuit of news, and editors will not encourage or tolerate illegal behavior.

Fabrication. Fabrication has no place in journalism and will not be tolerated. To guard against confusion, fictional and satirical writing should be clearly labeled if there could be any doubt in readers' minds about whether such writing deals with real events and persons.

Plagiarism. Plagiarism — the taking of wording or ideas from another person or organization without attribution — is a cardinal sin of journalism and will not be tolerated. When original information, quotes, ideas and distinctive language from other sources are used in our reports, they should clearly be attributed. Sentences or paragraphs taken from wire stories should be attributed either within the text or by a shirttail explaining that wire services were used in compiling the report.

Deception in reporting. Misrepresenting one's identity to get information is generally unacceptable, although there may be occasional exceptions. A restaurant critic, for example, may need to make reservations under an alias. Reporters who contact news sources with the intention of gathering material for a story should be candid about who they are and what they are doing.

Fictitious names. The use of a fictitious name to protect a subject's privacy should be used only as a last resort. In these rare cases, the use of the pseudonym must be explained to readers and approved by the Managing Editor.

Posing and alteration of photographs. Photographers must not stage or direct the content of news photographs or alter the elements of a news scene. This does not preclude a reasonable degree of posing in non-news situations or the art direction of studio photographs. Once taken, a photo must not be altered in any way that turns it into something the photographer did not see in the viewfinder. Changes must be limited to standard quality adjustments applied by imaging technicians.

Photo illustrations. The combination of photography and illustration to create a “photo illustration” is acceptable in cases in which the subject matter is complex, abstract or difficult to convey through documentary photography. However, all photo illustrations must contain an element of the absurd so exaggerated that the image could not be confused with a documentary photo. These pieces must be labeled as photo illustrations, and their use must be approved by a supervising design or photo editor. Specific guidelines are found in the Sentinel's Photo Illustration Policy.

Datelines. A dateline should be used only when the bylined reporter has gathered information at that location. It must never be used in a way that misleads the reader about where the reporter has traveled for the story.

Excerpts. With proper attribution, we may excerpt brief passages of books, articles and other published works in reviews and in news stories about the work being excerpted. But when using excerpts of more than a few lines from copyrighted works, we must first obtain permission from the publisher.

Opinion. Expressing opinion is the privilege of columnists, critics and editorial writers. Other Orlando Sentinel journalists must strive to avoid injecting opinion into their news reports. The same principle applies to community speeches, blogs and broadcast appearances. A practical guideline: If you wouldn't write it in your news story, don't say it in these other venues.

Correction of errors. When we publish information that is inaccurate or misleading, we will make every effort to publish the correct information as quickly as possible and to prevent the publication of similarly erroneous information in the future. The procedures and format for correcting errors are detailed in the Corrections and Clarifications Policy.

4. Anonymous Sources

“On the record” is the rule. We attribute information we publish in the Sentinel so that readers can judge for themselves the worth of what they read. We avoid attributing information to people we cannot identify in print because doing so can undermine our credibility. Sometimes, however, vital information cannot be attributed to identified sources. When we withhold a source's identity, responsibility for the reliability of that information falls to the Sentinel rather than to the person providing it.

To limit the use of anonymous sources, we should begin all interviews with the presumption that they are on the record. No statements made on the record can be taken off the record retroactively. We should not grant anonymity merely because someone asks for it, nor should we offer anonymity unless it is a condition of receiving information we regard as vital.

Reporters and sources do not always agree on the definitions of terms used in source negotiations, so we should use this common vocabulary and strive to ensure that sources understand it:

On the record: Information can be published and attributed to identified individuals.

Background/not for attribution: Information can be published but not attributed to identified individuals.

Deep background: Information can be published but not attributed to anyone. It also can be used as the basis for further reporting if the source is not identified.

Off the record: Information cannot be published and cannot be used as the basis for further reporting other than to guide the reporter.

Five considerations. Before publishing anonymous information, we should consider these questions:


  • Does the importance of the article outweigh any potential damage to the newspaper's credibility?
  • Is the information to be attributed to an anonymous source necessary?
  • Have all efforts to obtain the information from someone we can identify been exhausted?
  • Does the person providing the information have a legitimate reason for remaining anonymous, and can we explain that reason in the story?
  • Are we certain that the person providing the information does not have an ulterior motive?


Even when we can answer “yes” to all of these questions, we should follow these additional guidelines in using anonymous sources:

We should resort to the use of anonymous sources only for vital — never innocuous — information, and only to provide information of which they have firsthand knowledge. We should help the reader to evaluate the worth of the information by providing as much description of the source as possible without revealing his or her identity; ensure that by shielding the identity of one person we are not putting anyone else in jeopardy; make every effort to find additional sources who are independent of one another to corroborate the information; and avoid making an anonymous source the sole basis of a story.

Conversely, we should not allow someone whose identity we are protecting to level a personal attack; allow the description of an anonymous source to be altered without consulting the reporter who gathered the information and agreed to the anonymity; or refer anonymously to other journalists unless they are the subjects of a news report.

Approval of editors. Reporters should obtain the approval of supervising editors before granting anonymity. In cases where that is impractical, reporters should discuss the agreement with their editors before writing the story. In any case, they must disclose the source's identity to their editors, and sources who are granted anonymity must be informed of that requirement. Associate Managing Editors are responsible for knowing the identity of anyone referred to anonymously in a section for which they are responsible or in the reporting of anyone they oversee. The approving editor's initials should appear in the copy in notes next to any reference to an anonymous source, but the name of the source should not be entered into the computer system. The Editor, Managing Editor or Editorial Page Editor must also approve the use of any anonymous source.

Protection of anonymous sources. Any journalist promising a source anonymity should be prepared to go to jail to honor that commitment in the event that a judge orders the journalist to identify the source. It is the reporter's responsibility to ensure that all parties involved in an agreement to protect someone's identity understand the level of anonymity being granted and the conditions under which that agreement will not be honored.

Wire reports. We have less control over the use of anonymous sources in wire stories, but these pieces should meet the same basic standards as staff-written stories. Any wire story relying on anonymous sources must be of overriding importance to our readers. Information attributed to anonymous sources must be necessary to the article, must not be available on the record and must not contain personal attacks. Reports from other news organizations that rely on anonymous sources should be limited to information that is plausible and to subjects on which those organizations have access and expertise.

“Phantom” attribution. We should avoid attributing information to vague groups such as “experts,” “informed sources,” “key officials,” “knowledgeable sources,” “observers” or “onlookers.” We should not refer to anonymous “sources” when, in fact, there is just one. We should not refer anonymously to someone identified elsewhere in an article as if he or she is more than one person. And we should avoid seeming to attribute information through use of nebulous phrases such as “it is believed that” or “it is expected that.”

5. Decency, Fairness and Privacy

Gruesome images. The newspaper, Web site and television segments we produce should be sensitive in the depiction of uncovered dead bodies, particularly faces. Caution always is required before publicizing vivid images of dying and death.

Children. Reporting on children poses special challenges. Children often are eager to talk and be photographed, but they may have no idea of the potential consequences of having their names, pictures and words in the newspaper, on the Web or on television. Whenever possible, we should seek the approval of parents before interviewing, photographing or filming a child — especially when dealing with sensitive topics. Whether we have permission or not, we must always be mindful that children are not responsible for their words or actions in the same way adults are.

Ambushing. “Ambushing” news sources should generally be avoided.

Photographs or video from such encounters often appear accusatory merely because the subject was caught off guard.

Surreptitious recording. Under some circumstances, Florida law prohibits the use of tape recorders unless all parties consent to the recording of the coversation. Although there are times that such consent is not necessary, legal advice should be sought before using hidden tape recorders and cameras in gathering news, and such surreptitious use must be approved in advance by the Editor.

Lack of response. Efforts to reach news sources should allow them reasonable time to respond, even if it means delaying a report to include their comment.

“No comment.” A “no comment” response from an individual in the news should be phrased neutrally. The most neutral way to explain a person's desire not to be quoted in a news story is to say the person “would not comment.” The phrase “refused to comment” should be reserved for situations in which the person questioned would be expected to respond to a serious allegation — because of his or her office or role in the news event — but purposely avoids doing so.

Quotations. Quotes may be shortened through the use of ellipses and other generally understood and accepted editing devices, but editing should not distort the meaning of the person who is quoted. If a quote includes a slur or a profanity, it should be used only when the value of the story depends on it.

Names of sexual assault victims. With rare exceptions, we do not publish or broadcast the names of sexual assault victims without their consent. Exceptions require the approval of the Managing Editor or Editorial Page Editor.

Names of suspects. Generally, adult criminal suspects may be identified only when charges have been filed and juveniles only if they have been charged as adults. Exceptions must be approved by the Managing Editor or Editorial Page Editor.

Uncorroborated reports. We should not violate our own standards by publishing or broadcasting uncorroborated reports about a person just because other organizations have done so. The same applies to identifying sexual assault victims whose names have appeared elsewhere.

Identification of race. Generally, a person's race belongs in a story only if reporters and editors can articulate its relevance. The same principle applies to religion, ethnic origin and sexual orientation.

Political candidates. Individuals running for public office open themselves to particularly close media scrutiny. Reporters and their editors should consult regularly about which pieces of information about the candidate are of sufficient importance to warrant publication.