Fairness is at the core of excellent and ethical journalism. To tell the truest story possible, it is essential that we treat those we interview and report on with scrupulous fairness, guided by a spirit of professionalism. We seek responses from those who are the subjects of criticism, unfavorable allegations or other negative assertions in our stories. What we report is edited for time, space and clarity. Those are realities, not excuses for error. When we quote, edit or otherwise report what people tell us, we aim to be faithful to their meaning, so our stories ring true to those we interview. In all our stories, especially matters of controversy, we strive to consider the strongest arguments, seeking to deliver both nuance and clarity. Our goal is not to please the people we report on or to produce stories that create the appearance of balance, but to seek the truth.
Fairness in presenting the news
We have unique and essential obligations as journalists, with duties unlike any other professionals. We gather, edit and report the news to inform and educate the public about significant issues, developments and events.
We report for the public, not our sources. Our primary consideration when presenting the news is that truth is our guide.
We treat our sources justly, respectfully and without discrimination or favoritism. However, if our sources try to mislead us or put a false spin on the information they provide, we hold them accountable, verify the facts and reveal the truth.
We fully identify our sources with rare exceptions and only after a rigorous vetting process and approval by senior news leadership.
We strive to give our audience confidence that we have rigorously considered multiple points of view and relevant context in our reporting process. Our goal is the pursuit of truth, thus we avoid framing fairness as simplistic balance. Fairness is about proper consideration and not necessarily about equal time or equal weight in a story. If the evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports. We scrupulously avoid the trap of “false equivalency” in our reporting.
We stick to facts and to language that is clear, compelling and neutral. We emphasize context and clarity. We avoid “loaded” words preferred by a particular side in a debate. We write and speak in ways that will illuminate issues, not inflame them.
We acknowledge that we personally hold opinions and beliefs, but we consciously avoid allowing these to bias our decision-making and prejudice our reporting. WBUR journalists are vigilant about recognizing and revealing if we find ourselves unable to be journalistically fair in our work. Supervising editors and executive producers are ultimately responsible for addressing conflicts of interest and concerns over bias or potential bias.
Guideline: Present facts, not indictments.
The "court of public opinion" is an expression, not a legal forum. When a person or company has been charged with wrongdoing by official sources, we must carefully avoid presenting facts in a manner that presumes guilt. When covering legal cases, always tell our listeners and readers if the defendant has entered a plea. Be scrupulous about accurately using words such as "arrested," "charged," "indicted" and other legal terms.
Guideline: Help our sources understand our work.
Reporters and hosts must make sure that an interview subject or guest knows when an interview has begun and when it has ended. There should be no question about the distinction regarding what is or isn't for broadcast, and what is on the record and what is not on the record.
Guideline: Our sources shouldn't be surprised by how they're represented.
No one we interview should be surprised by what they hear or read themselves saying. The conversation and quotes should "ring true" to them. That's why WBUR hosts, producers, and reporters make sure that the people we speak with know what they say will be edited — and that we will strive to be true to the meaning of their words.
"You don't want guests to be shocked — or feel they were misled — when they hear themselves on the air and discover that most of what they said has been cut out," former NPR Editor Jonathan Kern writes in Sound Reporting.
Former All Things Considered host Robert Siegel says that when he’s recording an interview for broadcast later, "I inform people that this is not live, that it will be edited and that we will talk longer than what will be broadcast on the air." He also makes sure the guest knows about how long the edited conversation will end up being. "And I say that if you make a factual error, or I do, tell us and we will ask the question again."
Telling someone that we will be editing an interview does not, obviously, give us the right to do just anything. We "exercise good judgment ... [and] consider the editorial ramifications of the editing process," Kern says.
We must practice “ethical editing” to ensure the meaning remains true to the original intent.
If you have any doubt about what a person you interviewed meant, speak with them before broadcast or publication to prevent any misunderstandings. This should not be misconstrued as “quote approval,” but rather when we encounter uncertainty, it is our responsibility to seek clarity. We should recheck facts and elements of a story we are citing to sources. We should not share our full reports with sources before we share them with the public.
Guideline: Be fair to our sources.
If we're perceived as being unfair we not only risk losing the trust of our audience, we also put our reporting at risk. All individuals we report on should be able to trust that we'll be fair not just in how we present their views, but in how we seek those views. This means we give those whom we cover the opportunity to respond to critical allegations in our reports, or to explain themselves when we suspect they've given us inaccurate information.
When sources — even those involved in some of the most controversial issues of the day — trust that we're fair and honest, our work benefits and so does our audience.
Guideline: Give sources time to respond.
If our audience wonders what someone we report about had to say in his or her defense, and we haven't provided that information or explained our efforts to get their reaction and point of view, we have failed.
When we seek such responses, we give the subjects a reasonable amount of time to get back to us and multiple ways to do so (phone numbers, e-mail addresses, etc.). What we consider "a reasonable amount of time" will vary depending on the situation, determined after a thorough discussion involving the reporter and/or producer and appropriate editors.
When news is breaking, make sure the people we're attempting to reach know about our deadlines — for the next newscast or the next program, for example.
If, despite our best efforts, we cannot get a response but determine that we need to go ahead with the story, cull past reports, documents and statements to pull out any previous comments made by the subject or organization that may help explain their positions. Look for credible proxies who may be able to defend their side. And tell our listeners and readers about our attempts to contact the subjects.
Guideline: No anonymous attacks.
Anonymous sources should not be allowed to attack or praise others in our reports. They generally cannot make pejorative comments about the character, reputation, or personal qualities of another individual, or derogatory statements about an institution. We don't use such material in our stories.
While we recognize that some valuable information can only be obtained off the record, it is unfair to air a source's opinion on a subject of coverage when the source's identity and motives are shielded from scrutiny.
Guideline: Describe anonymous sources for our audience.
When a decision is made to use information that we have obtained from a source that must remain anonymous, we describe in as much detail as we can, without revealing so much that we effectively identify that person. We describe how the source knows this information, their motivations, and any other biographical details that will help our audience evaluate the source's credibility. At the same time, we should be clear with our sources how we are describing them, and be cautious of “jigsaw identification” in which someone (e.g. an employer) could identify the source by the details being shared. To help us in this pursuit, we should seek to understand from our sources who they are seeking anonymity from — the public? A boss? A family member?
It is never enough to say "WBUR has learned" something. It is not enough to report that "officials say" something, or that some detail is "reportedly" true. If it is important for listeners or readers to know, for example, what political party the source is from, we report that information. If it is important to know what agency the source is from, we report that. If it is important to know which side of an issue the source represents, we report that. We push to get as much detail as we can about how the source knows this information, and to get the source's agreement to report as much of that detail as possible. Was she in the room when the meeting happened? Does he have a copy of the report? Did he participate in the investigation?
Guideline: When you cite the sources of others, attribute clearly.
When we attribute information to anonymous sources, it is assumed that these are our sources and that we have obtained the information firsthand from them. If this is not the case, and we are referring to reports in other news outlets based on anonymous sources of theirs, we are meticulous about attributing the information to those other outlets and we describe as fully as possible who those sources are, and how they know their information.
Guideline: Avoid the “off the record” trap.
Although WBUR journalists do agree to talk to sources on background when necessary, our strong preference is to have sources stay "on the record." Before any unattributed information is reported, reporters must make every reasonable effort to get it on the record — if not from that source, then from somewhere else. Remember, it’s the journalist, not the source, who determines when it’s appropriate to go “off the record.”
Guideline: Our word is binding when making promises to sources.
As an ethical matter, when we make a promise to a source, we will keep it. Therefore we take any promise of anonymity seriously, and we should first ensure that we are able to keep that promise. We inform the source about the limits of legal protections, and expect the source to be honest with us.
Consult with editorial leadership, and if deemed necessary, with legal counsel (BU's Office of the General Counsel and WBUR's outside counsel) before you make a promise of confidentiality. Discuss whether the promise is necessary, what the exact scope of confidentiality will be, under what conditions the source might be willing to release you from the promise, and what the potential risks to you or WBUR might be.
Keep in mind that the legal protection provided to journalists to keep source identities, outtakes, or other confidential information secret is not 100% secure. Courts can attempt to compel journalists to testify or reveal information even when confidentiality has been promised, and refusal to reveal the information can result in jail time or fines. It is therefore possible that if journalists make a promise of confidentiality, but are later compelled to testify, they may either be jailed or ordered to pay damages. For those reasons, WBUR journalists must not promise confidentiality before discussing the issue with their editors, editorial leadership, and potentially, our legal team. It is critical to determine if confidentiality is necessary for the reporting and to weigh the potential risks. We want to make sure we can support and protect WBUR journalists in these tricky scenarios.
Guideline: Press anonymous sources hard.
Before we rely on information from anonymous sources, we press them hard on exactly what they know and how they know it. Our goal is to tell listeners and readers as much as we can about why this person is being quoted.
So, for example, "a senior State House official who was at the meeting and heard what the governor said," is the type of language we use. "An official" is not.
Guideline: Consider requests to remove names from WBUR’s archive individually, and hold a high bar.
The public’s interest and individual privacy are often in conflict, and the merits of each may shift over time. The permanence of the internet and the ubiquity of search place a new ethical responsibility on news organizations. News value may fade over time, but a digital story is indelible.
WBUR has a responsibility to report the truth. But it also recognizes that some of its published archive may be incomplete, out of date, or irrelevant. This is particularly the case when it comes to stories involving criminal justice. Crimes may spark initial news interest and coverage, but news organizations don’t always follow the adjudication of crimes through to their ultimate disposition. In general, we should be wary of identifying people (by name or in photos) suspected or charged in low-level crimes at all, absent a compelling reason (see more from the Associated Press).
There may be other scenarios in which information published by WBUR causes harm to individuals that outweigh news relevance. For instance, targets of online harassment campaigns may seek to have photos or information removed from stories.
Sometimes requests can be handled with updates to an old story (and headline). In some rare cases, WBUR may consider removing information or names from published stories. WBUR will consider a variety of factors, including the news value of the information, how recently it was published, the age of the person and their role (for instance, WBUR is unlikely to remove information involving public officials).
A committee including the executive editors for news and digital as well as no fewer than two other journalists will meet regularly to review requests for removal from WBUR’s published archive. As much as possible, the committee will include the original story’s reporters and editors in arriving at a decision. If information is removed or updated, the committee should add an editor’s note to the story.
Fairness to colleagues
Our colleagues in the journalism industry and at WBUR are also stakeholders in our work. Our actions reflect not just on ourselves, but also on our profession and on others in our organization. We strive to be fair to those we work alongside.
This is true on social media. Sharing our colleagues' work is encouraged. But when it comes to criticism of the work done by WBUR journalists, we treat our colleagues as we hope they would treat us. If we have something critical to say, we say it to them directly with respect and generosity. Social media is not the place for criticism of our colleagues.
We also treat each other with respect when using communication platforms such as Slack. When in doubt, it's always wise to ask a few questions: Would I say that directly to this person? Would I say that in front of my co-workers? How would I feel if that was said – in public — to me or about me?
Guideline: Attribute generously, and respect fair use.
Always be fair to your colleagues in the news media when drawing from their reports. Just as we insist that WBUR be given credit for its work, we are generous in giving credit to others for their original reporting and enterprise work.
When excerpting or quoting from other organizations' work, we strive to call attention to it, not draw attention from it. Do not quote or paraphrase another organization's material so much that you effectively make reading, watching or listening to their reports unnecessary. In its most egregious incarnations, excessive quotation can be construed as a form of plagiarism.
Guideline: Respect the WBUR copyright.
WBUR owns the material that we collect and produce in the course of our work, whether it's for use on-air or online. This material may not be reproduced elsewhere without the permission of WBUR. Consult with the executive editor for digital, programming director, and your department leader for requests to use WBUR's published work.