It is too tough to be ethical



M. Ziauddin

IN April, this year Agence France-Presse released a set new guidelines on journalistic ethics. Eric Wishart, former Editor-in-Chief at AFP and current Head of Special Projects, drafted the guidelines and the framework. Drawing on experiences and research from other newspapers and media organisations, Wishart has developed an extensive document framed around key values of journalism. “The most important thing in all the ethics documents I looked at was accuracy,” he said. “The second one was seeking the truth.” He’s well aware that accurately reporting something that is factually incorrect is not enough; ethical journalists need to test and verify information they receive. The guidelines are addressed specifically to the AFP staff.
Let us check what we in the media are doing in Pakistan against these highly cogent but very tough guidelines. I have paraphrased the guidelines where necessary.
The Fundamentals
Accuracy and truth
Report the facts accurately in a proper context without selective use of material or deliberate omissions. Separate fact from opinion and not report rumours as fact. Maintain the highest standards of verification. The headline and the lead paragraph must be supported by the story and we must ensure that background information is correct.
Every story must be correctly, precisely and transparently sourced. Only use anonymous sources if we have no alternative or for security reasons and the story is sufficiently important to justify it.
Datelines must be honest, and by-lined writers must be where they say they are. Photos and videos must not be staged, manipulated or edited to give a misleading or false picture of events. Graphics must be scaled correctly to avoid giving a distorted comparison of data. Information used in graphics must come from trustworthy sources and be thoroughly checked.
Must not be influenced by the hype or publicity surrounding an event and should never exaggerate. Treat superlative claims such as first, biggest, best and worst with the scepticism they deserve.
Seek the truth and not passively report information as it is presented. Challenge sources. Accurately quote a politician, but is he or she giving correct facts or telling the truth? Where did the aid worker learn the casualty toll? Are the numbers cited in a speech correct?
Report the news but should draw attention to any inconsistencies and inaccuracies in a newsmaker’s comments.
In other words, provide as clear and truthful coverage of events as possible. With the amount of rumour and noise circulating online and on social networks, the role of the mainstream media of providing accurate and verified news, via identified and reliable sources, has never been more important.
Balance and fairness: Coverage must be fair, impartial and balanced. Must try to contact all sides of a story and obtain comment and reaction from those facing criticism or accusations of wrongdoing. Unless dealing with breaking news, a person should be given reasonable time to respond. A single unanswered phone call or email is insufficient. If not possible reach the person in time, say so in the story and keep trying to elicit comment, updating the story if obtained.
Producing balanced coverage does not oblige the media to give equal space to all sides of an issue. Do not have to repeat hate speech, defamatory comments and incitements to violence or propaganda. Do not quote views that contradict established facts when giving background information.
Regularly step back and ask oneself if coverage in question really is balanced and complete, particularly when it comes to sensitive topics such as conflicts or elections.
Complaints and the right of reply Complaints made about coverage should be dealt with them politely, calmly and promptly, even when the complaint is unjustified. When a complaint is justified correct a factual error or offer to quote the aggrieved party in a fresh story — which does not preclude returning to the original source of the story for further comment.
In the case of complaints that touch on potential legal issues, such as libel or breach of law,(a) ask the person to submit the complaint in writing and (b) refer the matter to the management for handling by legal department.
One must not enter into correspondence with the person concerned beyond acknowledging receipt of their complaint and saying that it has been transferred to the relevant department. Anything written or said, however, well intentioned, can be used in future legal action.
Corrections and kills Correct errors quickly and transparently. Do not set a time limit on corrections – even if days or weeks have passed, factual errors must be corrected and if necessary, the story killed and removed from the database. When in doubt, the journalist should contact the chief editor and legal department for advice.
Data journalism Journalists mining data must ensure that the material is accurate and originates from a trustworthy source. They must present the resulting content in a neutral fashion. They must not present the data in a way that favours any particular narrative or indicates bias. Graphics giving data should be properly scaled to avoid giving misleading impressions.
Must clearly identify all material received as handouts from governments, press services etc. and never present it as original work. The same rule applies to pool reports.
Identifying yourself as a journalist
Journalists must identify themselves as such. They must not conceal or misrepresent their identities without an overriding reason such as personal safety, in which case the news management should be informed.
We must explain the circumstances under which we conducted an interview and say if there were any ground rules (which would require prior approval from the bureau chief, head of service or chief editor). If it was a face-to-face interview, we should make that clear by giving the location and any colour elements that add to the story.
If the interview was conducted electronically, we must say so, e.g. – XXX said in the interview, which was conducted by telephone/Skype call/ email/Facebook messenger etc.
This must be made clear from the very start of the series so that there is no danger of
Never submit the text of an interview or quotes for vetting although we can re-contact the individual for clarification of any factual points or unclear quotes.
We must never present the work of others as our own. If we use external material such as extracts from the work of others, pick-ups from interviews and other media, the source must be fully identified and credited. We must not violate copyright.
Presumption of innocence
We must respect the presumption of innocence and never suggest that because an individual has been arrested or charged that he or she is guilty.
Protection of sources
Journalists have a duty to protect the identity of confidential sources and fixers and should never knowingly put them at risk. Digital surveillance is now commonplace and this should be taken into account when working on sensitive stories. If we promise our sources confidentiality, we must be prepared to accept any legal consequences that may result.
Journalists should never hand over their recordings, notes or images to a third party. If requested to do so they should inform the chief editor who will seek legal advice if necessary.
Respect for the law
Journalists should respect the laws of the countries where they work and must not resort to illegal means such as theft, misrepresentation, stealing of passwords, hacking or electronic surveillance to obtain information. We can report on material whose origin is legally questionable such as leaked classified documents, but we must take care to ensure that we are not leaving ourselves open to potential legal action. In such cases, the reporter should contact the chief editor who will consult with the legal department if necessary.
Sources and Attribution
We have a duty to be as transparent as possible in our reporting so anonymous sources should only be used to report information that we cannot obtain by other means. The use of anonymous sources should be an exception, not the rule, and we must explain in as much detail as possible why we cannot identify the source.
Before granting anonymity, we must consider the motivations of the source and be wary of possible manipulation.
We should never film or record people with hidden equipment unless there is an overriding public interest or if we have security or other legitimate reasons. It is forbidden to film or record someone without their knowledge when the story concerns their private life or is in a private location.
Use of quotes
We must report sources accurately, without modifying what was said or selectively using quotes that misrepresent the sense of the statement.
It is not our responsibility to correct grammatical mistakes or clumsy language. We can use a partial quote or paraphrase if necessary, although it is legitimate to quote verbatim a public figure who misspoke.
We must never change the sense of a quote through editing, either in text or video, and avoid using ellipses. Without overburdening the text, we should give complete quotes and limit partial quotes. If there is any room for doubt, we must explain where and how we obtained the quote.
(This chapter is contained in AFP Editorial Standard and Best Practices—12.4.2016 and circulated mid-May by Ethical Journalism Network( EJN).

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