The ethical journalism test
Image courtesy of Randen Pederson and released under Creative Commons
Journalism, PR or propaganda?
If the content you produce pushes an agenda, spins a line, favours a sector of society, promotes a certain initiative without question, or has a desired outcome, you are probably producing public relations copy or even propaganda.
Real journalism is based on applying strict editorial ethics to all we do so that we can scrutinise the issues that most impact on the lives of our audience.
So, does your journalism pass the test? To be honest, most of us will fail numerous times throughout our careers, but it's good to have standards to aim at. Please go through the following questions to see whether your journalism is ethical or not.
Ten questions to ask yourself
1: What is my journalistic purpose?
2: What is my personal motivation?
3: How can I include others with different perspectives and diverse ideas?
4: Have I included, in fair measure, perspectives I disagree with?
5: Who are the stakeholders and what are their motivations?
6: What if the roles were reversed? How would I feel?
7: Have I got my own preferred outcome – an agenda?
8: What are the possible consequences of my actions – short and long term?
9: What are my alternatives to maximise my truth-telling responsibility and minimise harm?
10: Am I able to justify my thinking and my decisions to my colleagues, to the stakeholders and to the public?
See our editorial ethics section
Six rules for getting it right
1: Seek truth and report it as fully as possible – eyes wide open.
2: Act independently – owe nobody and don’t seek favours or favourites.
3: Minimise harm – had it not been for you, the world would never know.
4: Assess all facts – don’t ignore the uncomfortable, or that which goes against your script.
5: Independent sources – don’t follow the flock, find fresh voices and perspectives.
6: Thoroughly check the validity of information – take nothing at face value.
Owe nobody and don’t seek favours or favourites
Seven attitudes of mind
1: Be honest, fair, and courageous in gathering and reporting.
2: Give voice to the voiceless, scrutinise the executive and the powerful.
3: Guard vigorously the role a free press plays in an open society.
4: Seek out and disseminate competing perspectives.
5: Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise.
6: Be compassionate for those affected by your actions.
7: Treat all with respect, not as means to your journalistic end.
Give voice to the voiceless, scrutinise the executive and the powerful
A dozen rules on accuracy
1: All work must be well-sourced.
2: It must be based on sound evidence.
3: Your writing must be thoroughly fact checked.
4: It must be presented in clear, precise language.
5: Avoid unfounded speculation.
6: Accuracy is more important than speed.
7: All the relevant facts and information should be weighed to get to the truth.
8: If an issue is controversial, relevant opinions as well as facts may need to be considered.
9: Gather material using first-hand sources wherever possible.
10: Ensure you read through everything you write.
11: Check the authenticity of documentary evidence and digital material.
12: Corroborate claims and allegations made.
See our accuracy guidelines
Six tips on impartiality and diversity of opinion
1: Strive to reflect a wide range of opinions.
2: Be prepared to explore a range of conflicting views.
3: No significant strand of thought should be ignored or under-represented.
4: Exercise your editorial freedom to produce content about any subject, at any point on the spectrum of debate as long as there are good editorial reasons for doing so.
5: Ensure to avoid bias or an imbalance of views on all issues, particularly controversial subjects.
6: You will sometimes need to report on issues that may cause serious offence to many. You must be sure that a clear public interest outweighs the possible offence.
See our impartiality guidelines
The public interest test
1: Exposing or detecting crime.
2: Highlighting significant anti-social behaviour, corruption or injustice.
3: Disclosing significant incompetence or negligence.
4: Uncovering information that allows people to make more informed decisions about matters of public importance.
5: Protecting the health and safety of the public.
6: Preventing the public from being misled.
7: Protecting issues of freedom of expression.
Please see our training module on the public interest test
Be open, honest and straightforward in dealing with contributors, unless there is a clear public interest in doing otherwise. Where allegations are being made, the individuals or organisations concerned should normally have the right of reply.
See our fairness guidelines.
It is essential in order to exercise your rights of freedom of expression and information that you work within a framework which respects an individual's privacy and treats them fairly, while investigating and establishing matters which it is in the public interest to reveal.
See our privacy guidelines
Always remain independent of both state and partisan interests. Never endorse or appear to endorse any organisations, products, activities or services.
See our integrity guidelines
Accept information from any source, but know you will need to make a personal decision as to which information is worth considering and which is not. Sources must always be checked, especially when dealing with first-time sources that have never been used before. It is important to protect sources that do not wish to be named.
Editorial ethics question
Image courtesy of Alexis O'Toole and released under Creative Commons
Politics, planning, gifts and favours
You are a reporter on a small town newspaper and are covering a story about plans for a massive new leisure centre and hotel complex to be built locally.
You sense something is wrong when a local politician becomes an outspoken champion for the proposal, saying it will be good for business and for the fortunes of the town.
While investigating the story you find that the politician has close business connections with the owner of the hotel who submitted the planning application and with the developer who has drawn up the plans.
Two years ago, when the hotel was extended, you and a few of your friends accepted an invitation for a weekend break including free meals and unlimited fine wine. At the time you felt uneasy about accepting, but you decided to go ahead anyway and make the most of the free offer.
As soon as you start to ask questions about this proposed new development, both the hotel owner and the politician remind you of your earlier lapse in editorial judgement. What do you do?
a) talk to your editor, admit that you accepted hospitality from someone who could be part of an investigation and leave it to your editor to decide how the story is covered.
b) drop the story in order to protect your newspaper and hope that by keeping quite and not asking awkward questions your earlier involvement will not be revealed.
Correct answer: Click here to view
The author of this piece, David Brewer, is a journalist and media strategy consultant who founded Media Helping Media. David has worked as a journalist and manager in print, broadcast and online. He has spent many years delivering journalism training and media consultancy services worldwide.
This site has been given permission to use and adapt elements of the BBC's Editorial Guidelines in these short editorial ethics modules. They have been updated to reflect changing international, regional and cultural variations.