Jack's Journal - July 2021
Why Nonprofit Newspapers are Held to Higher Ethical Standards than their For-profit Counterparts
Director of Nonprofit Education & Consulting
In my May 2021 and June 2021 TANGO Trends columns I took up the question of the extent to which the newly emerging nonprofit newspaper industry is subject to “higher level” journalistic ethical standards than their for-profit (commercial) predecessors and competitors.
I believe the answer is yes – almost by necessity — given the fact that these newspapers qualify as “charities” under the law of the state where they are formed – and, in addition, because of their tax-exempt status under federal tax law. Put it this way – while government, because of the First Amendment, cannot regulate journalistic content — state attorneys general can enforce the law of charities (as articulated in the corporate charters of the newspapers and in the terms of donor restrictions), and the IRS can enforce the tax law requirement to obtain and maintain exempt status.
As I said in earlier columns – the base requirement of both state and federal law is that the content be educational — cover both sides of issues so that readers can form their own judgments with respect to the issues of the day.
With that said, what you will see below is a working draft of a Nonprofit Newspaper Code of Ethics suitable for these purposes. The draft is based on the Code of Ethics designed for commercial journalism platforms and published by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), but with an additional layer of content designed to address my position on the matter.
To make things easier – the new material is highlighted below. I do not identify my deletions from the SBJ Code (they are few) – but you can find those by looking to the SPJ Code at the end of the link above.
TEXT OF SPJ CODE OF ETHICS MODIFIED TO FIT A HYPOTHETICAL NONPROFIT CALLED WORLDWIDE NONPROFIT NEWS OR WNN
- WNN’s content will be selected and prepared based on objective editorial criteria such as the degree to which both sides of controversial issues are covered.
- WNN’s reporters will conduct thorough investigations to provide sufficient factual information to aid readers in the learning process, and the method of producing content will instruct the public on subjects useful to the individual and beneficial to the community
- WNN will inform the public of all sides of issues with a sufficient factual foundation to allow readers to form an independent opinion based on the knowledge obtained from the articles.
The text and terms of this Code of Ethics shall be read and interpreted in the context of and subject to the requirements of Section 501(c)(3) and applicable state law, and in the case of any insistency the terms of Section 501(c)(3) and state law shall control.
CODE OF ETHICAL PRINCIPLES
WNN believes that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity. WNN declares these four principles as the foundation of ethical journalism and encourages their use in its practice by all people in all media.
PRINCIPLE ONE: SEEK TRUTH AND REPORT IT
WNN’S journalism will be accurate and fair. WNN’s Journalists will be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting, and interpreting information. WNN’s Journalists will:
- Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it. Use original sources whenever possible.
- Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.
- Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing, or summarizing a story.
- Gather, update, and correct information throughout the life of a news story.
- Be cautious when making promises but keep the promises they make.
- Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.
- Consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.
- Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.
- Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.
- Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless.
- Support the open and civil exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.
- Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government. Seek to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that public records are open to all.
- Provide access to source material when it is relevant and appropriate.
- Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices we seldom hear.
- Avoid stereotyping. Journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting.
- Label advocacy and commentary.
- Never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual information. Clearly label illustrations and re-enactments.
PRINCIPLE TWO: MINIMIZE HARM
WNN believes that Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues, and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect. WNN’s Journalists will:
- Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort and recognize that pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.
- Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage, and use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent. WNN’s Journalists will consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.
- Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.
- Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. WNN’s Journalists will weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.
- Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.
- Balance a suspect’s right to a fair trial with the public’s right to know. WNN’s Journalists will consider the implications of identifying criminal suspects before they face legal charges.
- Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication. WNN’s Journalists will provide updated and more complete information as appropriate.
PRINCIPLE THREE: ACT INDEPENDENTLY
The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public. WNN’s Journalists will:
- Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. WNN’s Journalists will disclose unavoidable conflicts.
- Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel, and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.
- Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; WNN’s journalists will not pay for access to news. WNN’s Journalists will identify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not.
- Deny favored treatment to advertisers, donors, funders, grantmakers, or any other special interests, and resist internal and external pressure to influence coverage.
- Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two. WNN’s Journalists will prominently label sponsored content.
PRINCIPLE THREE: BE ACCOUNTABLE AND TRANSPARENT
Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public. WNN’s Journalists will:
- Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences.
- Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage, and news content.
- Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity, and fairness.
- Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently.
- Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.
- Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations.
The WNN Code of Ethics is a statement of abiding principles supported by additional explanations and position papers that address changing journalistic practices. It is not a set of rules, rather a guide that encourages all who engage in journalism to take responsibility for the information they provide, regardless of medium. The code should be read as a whole; individual principles should not be taken out of context. While WNN enjoys the benefit of the First Amendment, it is subject to the legally enforceable limits of Section 501(c)(3) and will abide by those limits in the conduct of its affairs.
More From TANGO
How can nonprofit journalism stay true to their legal obligation to educate readers about both sides of the stories or issues they cover so that they can make up their own minds.
In this TANGO Trends article Jack presents the question, “Can the Nonprofit Sector Save Journalism from Itself?”