San Francisco Chronicle: Ethical News Gathering

The Chronicle strives to cover the news accurately, fairly and honestly.

Perfection is seldom possible amid the rush of daily deadlines, but it is possible to set our sights high. The following guidelines are offered in that spirit and are intended to be altered and amended to suit specific circumstances. The guidelines exceed in many instances the minimum we must follow, but are intended to be a starting place for the many informal discussions about stories that take place in the newsroom each day.

1. Quotes. Quotations should be as accurate as possible and should fairly reflect the context of conversations. Correcting grammar so that a quote is not confusing -- or fixing dialect so that a speaker does not look foolish -- is OK.

a) Sequence. If you use quotes in a different sequence from the one in which they were made, take care that the new order does not alter the meaning or create a misleading or unfair impression. Call back sources of abridged or non-sequential quotes if you have doubt about the accuracy or impression left by your abridgment or resequencing.

2. Photographs and graphics. Both photos and graphics should represent reality as precisely and accurately as reasonably possible. Standards of honesty, accuracy and fairness apply to news photographs and graphics just as they do to news articles.

a) Historical photos. Historical and file photographs must be labeled as such so that they do not mislead readers. Before a file photograph is used, we must be certain that we have the right do to so without agreement of the original photographer or owner of the copyright.

b) Enhancements. Pre-press enhancement should be confined to changes that make news photographs more faithful to the reality of the scene or situation depicted. Changes should not be made to alter reality.

c) Manipulation. When a photograph is altered or manipulated for illustrative purposes, the resulting image must be clearly labeled to indicate that it has been altered and is not a documentary news photograph.

d) Posed pictures. Photographers may pose a subject for a portrait or for a photo illustration. Photo illustrations should be labeled as such. If there is any concern that a posed portrait is misleading, the photo caption should make clear that the subject in the photo was posed for the photograph.

e) Photographer's news responsibilities. Photographers must not control or suggest activity to subjects in a news photograph. "Re-creating" news for photographs is not permissible.
Photographers must be alert to -- and avoid -- situations in which straightforward photography may give readers a misleading impression.

Photographers should avoid shooting or cropping a photograph in a way that misrepresents.

3. Unusual news gathering procedures. As a general practice, reporters, editors, photographers and other news staffers should identify themselves as Chronicle employees when gathering information for stories.
Any decision to misrepresent or impersonate someone else can seriously undermine The Chronicle's credibility. The decision not to identify one's self as a Chronicle employee needs the approval of the Managing Editor, and the following tests should be applied in making the decision:

a) Public importance. Is the resulting news story or photograph of such vital public interest that its news value outweighs the potential damage to trust and credibility?

b) Alternatives. Can the story be recast to avoid the need not to disclose one's identity in gathering the information?

c) Last resort. Have all other reasonable means of getting the story been exhausted?
Any unusual practices used -- and the reasons for using them -- should be disclosed in print as part of the story when it is published.

4. Taping. Any interview conducted by telephone may be taped only with the consent of the person being interviewed.
This is required by law.

Taping of face-to-face interviews requires the consent of the person being interviewed unless the interviewee indicates that he or she does not expect the interview will be kept confidential and neither quoted nor paraphrased (a recording may be subject to court seizure and thus disclosure). As a courtesy, we should always ask permission to tape record an interview.

5. Opinions. In general, opinion and analysis articles or columns should be labeled or placed so that they are distinct from other news.

6. Sources. The use of confidential sources should be the exception rather than the routine.

a) Confidentiality. Editors and reporters should seriously consider the value of information received from a confidential source before deciding to print it. We prefer to get information on the record and effort should be made to do so before publishing information without attribution.

The decision to use a confidential source can lessen the credibility of the story and the newspaper.

The following tests should be used in deciding to use a confidential source:

-- Public importance. Is the resulting news story of such vital public interest that its news value outweighs the potential damage to trust and credibility?

-- Alternatives. Can the story be recast to avoid the need of a confidential source?

-- Last resort. Have all other reasonable means of getting the story been exhausted?

b) Identity. A reporter who pledges confidentiality to a source must not violate that pledge.
If the reporter is asked by an editor for the identity of a source, the reporter should advise the source of the editor's request. If the source wishes to withhold his or her identity from the editor, then the reporter and editor must decide whether or not to use the information even though the source's identity remains known only to the reporter.

c) Motives. When a source must remain unidentified, the reason should be stated in print (as long as the reason doesn't identify the source). Reporters are encouraged to indicate as much as possible in articles about an unidentified source to help readers evaluate the source's information.

d) Clear agreements. Reporters and editors are responsible for assuring that agreements with sources are clear, precise and understood by all parties. If there is any doubt that a source understands that all information is on the record we should inform the source of this fact at the earliest opportunity in clear terms.

7. Privacy. We treat people with respect. This means having a high regard for personal privacy. Ordinary citizens have a greater right to privacy than public figures.

a) Ordinary citizens. The value of publishing names, religious belief, sexual orientation, ethnicity or past behavior should be weighed against the relevance to the story and compassion for the individual.

b) Public figures. Personal conduct may have a bearing on public roles and public responsibilities. The degree to which a public figure voluntarily conducts his or her life in public or the degree to which private conduct bears on the discharge of public responsibility should guide the publication of personal information.

c) Race. In general, we do not publish someone's race or ethnic background unless that information is pertinent to the story.

d) Crime. In general, we do not report the race of criminal suspects unless their ethnic background is 1) part of a description that seeks to identify them or 2) an important part of the story (e.g., the crime was a hate crime).
Names of accused criminals should be as complete as possible, with middle names or initials. Examples: Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, Robert Alton Harris, Mark David Chapman. This will avoid mix ups with other law-abiding citizens.

e) Sexual assault. In general, we do not name victims of sexual assault unless the victim informs us he or she wants his or her name to be published.

f) Juveniles. In general, we do not name juvenile suspects (under the age of 18) in crime stories. We also are cautious about naming juvenile victims of a crime.

g) Grief. Use of photography or reporting that captures private grief should be treated with sensitivity and care.
We treat suicides and attempted suicides with sensitivity.

8. Community standards. We strive to have high standards of taste and decency, and we want to be sensitive to community values.

a) Language. Offensive language, including profanity and insulting comment, should be published only when essential to a story.

b) Images. Use of photographs that have the potential to offend or harm should be carefully discussed before publication. This includes photographs that are suggestive of criminal or sexual activity, are gruesome, are intrusive or are in bad taste.

c) Courtesy and compassion. We want to be especially sensitive to news sources in times of grief, personal loss or extreme emotional distress. We will seek to take special care to be fair to those unaccustomed to dealing with the press.

9. Plagiarism. Stealing someone else's wording, quotes or other work is wrong. All language and ideas, research findings and images presented in The Chronicle should be the original work of the writer or artist or be attributed to an original source.

Example: Stories that include material from wire services should either credit the service when specific language or quotes are borrowed, or should use an attributing phrase such as "the Associated Press reported...' in the body of the story.

"Gray areas" do exist. Staffers must use their professional judgment when questions of plagiarism and attribution arise.
As a rule of thumb, if there is a question, it should be settled on the side of prudence: The material should not be used or it should be attributed to its original source.

10. Corrections. We strive for accuracy and should quickly correct errors or misleading statements. All complaints must be brought to the attention of a department head or the Managing Editor. (Because some complaints may be legal demands for correction -- and require the involvement of legal counsel -- we insist that all complaints, no matter how trivial, be brought to the attention of a department head or the Managing Editor.)

a) Speed and documentation. Quick action is required in making corrections -- both ethically and legally.
If you receive a complaint, document the complaint by attaching a copy of the offending article. Write a short memo explaining the circumstances of the complaint and your assessment of the facts: Did we make a mistake? Did we misquote? Did we make an error of fact? Is there a misunderstanding that we can and should clarify? The memo should be addressed to the Corporate Counsel of Chronicle Publishing. Deliver the memo to your department head or to the Managing Editor. He or she will make sure that the memo reaches the right person.

b) Clarity. While we do not print a correction every time someone says he or she has been misquoted, we do strive for fairness and accuracy. If we have given our readers a wrong impression in the reasonable view of a principal of a story, there may be need for clarification.

Every effort should be made to set the record straight, not just to correct errors of fact.

11. Gathering information. The Chronicle does not use illegal means to gather information. Chronicle staffers must not trespass or steal information. Private papers or private records are rarely used without consent of their owner.

a) Don't pay for it. In general, The Chronicle does not pay news sources for information or for leads to news stories. Approval to pay for a news story (e.g., a political poll) must come from the Managing Editor.

This policy was developed with the help of many Chronicle staff members, many major newspapers and a few journalism organizations.

Many Chronicle staffers provided critiques of draft policies, and a good number of their suggestions have been included. Staffers who deserve special mention for their work on the original drafts include: Marianne Thomas, Ron Thomas, Susan Yoachum, Jon Stewart, Peter Sinton, Bob Graham, Dan Rosenheim and Matt Wilson.