Wednesday, December 22, 2004

AP's ethics policy

AP is circulating a new ethics policy, and I applaud it. E&P details how some of the provisions regarding freelancing and restrictions on stock ownership are drawing concerns from the Newspaper Guild. (Such as: "Editors and writers who regularly cover the financial markets may not own stock in any company" though they can own index and diversified publicly available mutual funds.)

But overall, the policy is a good one and should be in the files of every journalism professor teaching ethics (in other words -- every journalism professor). You can get a copy from the News Media Guild site here (MS Word document direct link).

Kathleen Carroll, the wire service's executive editor, told E&P that parts of this policy have been around, and this just pulls it together in some cases. But the extensive section on the use of anonymous sources is excellent reading alone. Among other things:
  • It provides good definitions of on the record, off the record, background and deep background. Others may use slightly different terms, but the general structure and explanations are solid.
  • It puts various restrictions on the use of anonymous material, such as for factual information only, not available elsewhere, manager must know source's identity.
  • It forbids using anonymous material from a source who later is cited in the story as declining to comment (this is an old parlor game in Washington and state capitals. I seriously doubt AP will be able to enforce this, but bravo for stating it and making it subject to oversight).
  • It reminds AP staff that, "At the end of the interview, the reporter should try once again to move some or all of the information back on the record." We too often forget that, and yet I found I could often recapture large chunks, if not all, of an interview on the record.
Another provision I think AP will find itself getting slack on: "Stories should be held while attempts are made to reach additional sources for confirmation or elaboration." That was tough when the NY general desk was breathing down your neck. It's even tougher now with live to the Web, the even greater competitive pressures from AP's members, etc. (Such competitive pressures, for instance, eventually overrode AP's policy -- restated in the latest edition -- about not identifying rape victims when it came to the Kennedy trial, so I've got no reason to believe anything will change; it's human nature.)

Along that same line, the policy says: "We must make significant efforts to reach anyone who may be portrayed in a negative way in our stories, and we ust give them a reasonable amount of time to get back to us before we move the story." Again, I wonder how long that "reasonable time" will be in this era of urgents and flashes and news alerts.

The section on quotations advises: "We do not alter quotations, even to correct grammatical errors or word usage." It's a nice sentiment, but the psychology of listening and transcribing quotes works against that -- I think you'll still see small changes (do we really quote George W exactly as he speaks? From some comparisons I've seen, not always). But the draft goes on to provide good advice: "If a quotation is flawed because of grammar or lack of clarity, the writer must be able to paraphrase in a way that is completely true to the original quote. If a quote's meaning is too murky to be paraphrased accurately, it should not be used."

Thanks to The Media Drop for the pointer.

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