We must be honest and truthful in the course of our work. It is a cornerstone of the trust between journalists and the public. We identify ourselves as WBUR journalists when we report. We attribute information, making clear to our audience what information comes from which source. We do not pay for interviews. We avoid hyperbole and sensational conjecture. We edit and present information honestly, without deception. Only in very rare instances – such as when public safety is at issue, when lives are at stake, or when our safety is of great concern – might we withhold or disguise our identity or intent when reporting. Before we take such a step, we engage in rigorous deliberation, consider all alternatives and have approval from senior news leaders. Then, when we tell the story, we fully disclose what we did and why.
Honesty in reporting and interviewing
When we are working, we identify ourselves as WBUR journalists to those whom we interview and interact. We do not misrepresent or conceal our identities, pose as someone or something we are not, use hidden microphones or cameras to collect information, or record phone calls without the permission of all parties on the line, except in the very rarest of circumstances. We can justify the use of deception only in very rare situations where the information we seek is profoundly important and when it is impossible to gain that information through full disclosure of our journalistic identity and intent. In such cases we must conduct a rigorous deliberation with the executive editors for news, and/or the executive producers for the national programs and podcasts, and the chief content officer, as well as with WBUR attorneys.
Guideline: When might it be appropriate to use deception or misrepresentation in news gathering?
- When the information obtained is of profound importance. It must be of vital public interest, such as revealing great “system failure” at the top levels, or it must prevent profound harm to individuals.
- When all other alternatives for obtaining the same information have been exhausted.
- When we have conducted a thorough, collaborative, and deliberative decision-making process on the ethical and legal issues, including consent laws in different states.
- When we are willing to disclose the nature of the deception and the reason for it.
- When we are able to commit the resources and time to pursue the story fully. Our work must be bulletproof.
- When the harm prevented by the information revealed through deception outweighs any harm caused by the act of deception.
Criteria that do not justify deception:
- Winning a prize.
- Beating the competition.
- Getting the story in less time and with less expense.
- Doing it because “others already did it.”
- The subjects of the story are themselves unethical.
Honesty in presenting information
Guideline: Our audience should always know which information comes from what source.
Plagiarism – taking someone else's work and intentionally presenting it as if it is your own – is wrong. It's an unforgivable offense. But it's not enough that we don't intend to deceive our audience. Our standard is to make clear to our audience where the information we publish and broadcast comes from.
That means no material from another source should ever be included verbatim, or substantially so, without attribution. Our writing should be our own. There is no excuse for writing that lifts from other news organizations without attribution.
It also means that whenever we present someone's words verbatim in text, we encase them within quotes or, in an audio report, make it clear that we are using the source's wording. If we paraphrase for space or clarity, we transparently credit the source of the ideas. And we don't lightly edit quotes just to avoid putting them in quotes; we use brackets, ellipses and other signals to make clear we've changed what someone said.
Guideline: We do not fabricate.
"Public radio reporters and producers," Sound Reporting advises, "do not 'manufacture' scenes for news programs. If you arrive at an office 15 minutes after the employees finish holding a prayer vigil for their kidnapped boss, you cannot ask them to reconvene so you can record a simulation of the event. By the same token, you shouldn't ask people to pretend they are answering the phone, or typing a letter, or fixing breakfast, so that you can get sound of those activities."
Our audience should never be confused or deceived about what is happening in our stories. For instance, if a dog barks in a story, it should be the real dog, not a sound effect. (And get the dog’s name.)
Guideline: Our visual journalism must honestly depict reality.
When reporting on news events, the photographs and video we take and use depict events truthfully, honestly and without bias. Images are only enhanced for technical clarity — to correct color or improve contrast, for example. We are careful in how we crop photos and edit video to ensure that the scene is in proper context. We let events happen — we do not stage scenes to make them fit a storyline. If we have to rely on "file" art from the past, we clearly state so and include the date. And when considering photos provided by other organizations (e.g. The Associated Press), we view them with a critical eye to gauge whether they meet our standards.
When stories call for studio photography, it will be obvious to the viewer and if necessary it will be made perfectly clear in the accompanying caption information.
Likewise, when we choose for artistic or other reasons to employ illustrations or composites that include photos we clearly label the visuals as “photo illustration” or “composite.” We take great care when we translate data into charts and visualizations. For example, while always striving to be accurate, we also guard against false precision. And we carefully consider the scales applied to the information we use and the context in which it’s presented.
Just as we do in the "real" world, we identify ourselves as WBUR journalists when we are working online. So, if as part of our work we are posting comments, asking questions, tweeting, retweeting, blogging, using Facebook or doing anything on social media or other online forums, we clearly identify ourselves and that we work for WBUR. We do not use pseudonyms when doing such work.
WBUR journalists may, in the course of their work, "follow" or "friend" Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and other social media sites created by political parties and advocacy groups. But we do so to monitor their news feeds, not to become participants, and we follow and friend sites created by advocates from all sides of the issues. It's as basic a tool as it once was to sign up to be on mailing lists.
Just as we need not declare our presence to every individual at a public event, there are public online forums and platforms that we monitor in our news gathering and reporting process where it may not be required or even appropriate to announce ourselves. If there is any question about whether we should be announcing our presence as a journalist, and most certainly if there are safety concerns (for example, if we are monitoring chat platforms used by hate groups) consult with your editor to discuss precautions and procedures.
If in their personal lives WBUR journalists join private online forums, they may follow the conventions of those outlets. But we do not use information gathered from our interactions on such sites in our reports for WBUR. If we get ideas for stories, we treat the information just as we would anything we see in the "real world" — as a starting point that needs to be followed by open, honest reporting.
Finally, we acknowledge that nothing on the internet is truly private. Even if what we're doing is personal and not identified as coming from someone at WBUR, we understand that what we say and do could still reflect on WBUR. So we do nothing that could undermine our credibility with the public, damage WBUR's standing as an independent source of news, or otherwise jeopardize WBUR's reputation. In other words, we don't behave any differently than we would in any public setting or on a WBUR broadcast.
Guideline: Online sources should be on-the-record too.
In today's world, many contacts with sources are made online — via emails and social media sites. As we discuss in the guidelines about accuracy and transparency, WBUR strives to keep its interviews on-the-record. The same is true of our "virtual" interactions with sources. We make that clear to potential sources when we reach out to them.