Our obligation is to report the news good and bad. And everyone affected by our journalism deserves to be treated with decency and compassion. We are civil in our actions and words, avoiding arrogance and hubris. We listen to others. When we ask tough questions, we do so to seek answers — not confrontations. We respect and strive to include cultures different from our own and seek to represent them authentically in our work. We are mindful of how our own experiences affect our perception. We minimize harm and take special care with those who are vulnerable or suffering. And with all subjects of our coverage, particularly for those who do not hold public roles, we are mindful of their privacy as we fulfill our journalistic obligations.
Respect for sources and subjects of coverage and for our audience
The public is the most important stakeholder in our work, but everyone we cover is also an important stakeholder. We practice ethical journalism by doing our best to minimize harm as we report information in the public interest.
We pursue the truth with decency rather than ruthlessness, and humanity rather than indifference. In our reporting and interviewing, we favor clarity over sensationalism.
Our duty is to hold the powerful accountable, thus we don't take "no" for an answer when public officials avoid answering our questions. But even in our doggedness, we are polite and do not respond in kind to those who are less than courteous to us.
Guideline: Take special caution with those who are less media-savvy.
We make sure our guests and interview subjects know the general topics we want to talk with them about. We are especially sensitive with those who are inexperienced interviewees. While a mayor or university president, for example, can be expected to be comfortable in front of microphones and cameras, and to be "ready to go" relatively quickly, a parent or a small-business owner deserves some extra time before the tape starts rolling.
Guideline: Be considerate of community norms.
Realize that different communities and constituencies – online and offline – have their own culture, etiquette, and norms, and be respectful and inclusive of them. Our ethics don't change in different circumstances, but our decisions might.
The foundation of respect in reporting on any community is awareness. Strive to be knowledgeable about the culture and actively work to understand your own blind spots. Consult with your colleagues and resources in the community before you venture into unfamiliar settings.
Consider as well how your conduct in a community will affect your reporting. As you adjust behaviors such as language and dress in different situations, think about what might be most helpful or harmful to effective reporting.
Also, appreciate that journalism can be an intrusive act, and conduct yourself as a decent guest of the community where you're reporting. For instance, if the customary etiquette is to remove your shoes upon entering a building, it's appropriate to oblige.
Guideline: Show respect in sensitive circumstances.
WBUR journalists are sensitive when seeking or using interviews of those affected by tragedy or grief. That's especially true when dealing with children, anyone not familiar with being interviewed, and individuals who have difficulty understanding us because of language or comprehension differences. We are also careful with those who might be putting themselves in danger by speaking to us. If interviewing a witness to a crime, we must weigh carefully whether we are exposing the source to risk by identifying the person by name as a witness.
Guideline: Take special care with minors.
In addition to being ethically sensitive, be sure to consider legal issues when dealing with minors (generally defined as anyone under the age of 18). An interview or photograph of a minor about a sensitive subject require us to secure permission from at least one of the minor's parents (preferably both) or a legal guardian. Examples of sensitive subjects include cheating, sexual activity, involvement in gangs or crime, difficult family relationships, probation violation, pregnancy or parenthood, sexual abuse, mental and physical health and similar topics that could have legal ramifications or lead to embarrassment. Special care should be given to identifying minors in these scenarios, considering their thoughts may change with age.
An interview or photograph of a minor in a special custodial situation, such as foster care, juvenile detention, or holding facilities for undocumented immigrants, requires the consent of the person who has custody of the minor.
In cases where there is even a hint of doubt about whether to get consent or from whom, consult with your editor.
Guideline: Take special care when reporting about distressing situations.
We are extra careful in our coverage where people may have witnessed horrific scenes. While we can’t undo the harm caused by trauma, we can minimize any further harm we might create by our intrusion. We must be professional, thoughtful and compassionate even as we pursue and report the truth. Situations like school shootings, racial violence and other acts of brutality require special care when interviewing witnesses and/or relatives. If interviewing substantially increases the distress of a witness, carefully balance the importance and quality of the information being obtained with the interviewee's emotional state and decide whether to pause or end the interview. In addition, discuss with your editor whether the information provided advances the public’s understanding, particularly if the airing of an interview may cause additional distress or harm.
Guideline: We don't name individuals who have allegedly suffered sexual assaults with rare exceptions.
WBUR does not name victims of sexual assaults. There are exceptions at times – such as when an individual wishes to go public – and WBUR senior news leadership will judge these instances on a case-by-case basis.
Guideline: We do not blindly air or post propaganda.
During times of civil unrest or criminal activity, groups or individuals may produce content to spread their messages. We must have a strong journalistic purpose to use such content, and when doing so we must be careful and transparent with our audience about the source of the content and our purpose for using it.
Guideline: Take great care in using potentially offensive language or video.
We avoid hard and fast rules while turning to policy as a guide for our decision making. The NPR policy offers us guidance: "...there are rare instances where we will permit use of profane or indecent languages for news or programmatic reasons. Such an instance is when the use of such language is so vital to the essence of the story that to excise or bleep it would be to distort it or blunt its power and meaning." The NPR policy states: "As a responsible broadcaster, NPR has always set a high bar on use of language that may be offensive to our audience. Use of such language on the air has been strictly limited to situations where it is absolutely integral to the meaning and spirit of the story being told."
This holds true for other offensive language, such as racist and ethnic slurs. The NPR policy further states that in some cases "the use of profanity ... is editorially justifiable" because it meets the test of being "vital to the essence of the story" and cutting it out or bleeping the word would alter the power and meaning of the report.
Ideally, before the offensive language or the profanity is aired, consider preceding it with a language advisory from the host or the reporter. Similar advisory considerations should be given to digital and visual storytelling
Guideline: Discussions about whether to use such material must happen well before broadcast or posting.
If potentially offensive language is being considered for broadcast, senior news managers must be consulted with enough lead time to allow for a substantive discussion. If time for discussion is running short, the language must be cut from the report or "bleeped."
Videos and audio clips of someone being shot, a disaster victim crying for help, bodies being recovered and other potentially disturbing scenes present us with challenges. Cellphone video and police body cameras have made these decisions more frequent. They can provide important evidence, but we should be mindful of the impact they might have on our audience.
When weighing whether to post such videos online and to use any clips on the air, keep in mind that conversations are required. Depending on the nature of the content, consult with the executive editors for news and digital, and/or the executive producers for national shows and podcasts.
Live broadcasts and rolling coverage present particular challenges, and sometimes we may not be able to control the source material. Some programs, such as Radio Boston and On Point, are able to use delay technology to avoid unintended profanity and other objectionable language. That is not always possible for all live coverage, and we should always remain sensitive to the experience of our listeners.
Guideline: Report the facts in tragedies, but don’t be callous.
While our journalistic duty is to tell what happened, we must be thoughtful and sensitive. Audio may convey graphic detail and photos or video may show someone's death or grievous injury. Out of respect for that person and that person's family, we consider carefully what should be shown or heard. Our general rule is that we do not post video or use audio of someone's moment of death or serious harm. There will be exceptions, but only after discussion and approval from senior news leadership.
We also respect our audience. They want the facts. But for many, reading or hearing descriptions will be more than enough. Seeing or hearing disturbing events could leave them too shaken to follow the rest of a story.
"Every other news outlet is using it" is not on its own a justification for posting or broadcasting anything.
Guideline: Verify the authenticity of the content.
Proceed with caution in using external audio, photos or video, particularly in breaking news events. Especially in the first minutes and hours after such content surfaces, its credibility may be in doubt.
Guideline: Consider alternative approaches when reporting and publishing graphic details and content.
If it's decided that videos or photographs with potentially disturbing content are newsworthy, our audience should be forewarned. They should include a warning label, and shouldn’t post anywhere that would autoplay if it is out of our control.
Likewise, on the air, listeners should never hear potentially disturbing content without first being told that it's coming. For instance, audio of gunshots should not be heard until after a caution has been provided.
We should consider whether a video's disturbing moments and sounds can and should be blurred or bleeped, for posting online and using on the air.
If we decide to link to another outlet that has obtained and posted disturbing content, we should caution readers as well. The language should be simple and clear. For example: "The Daily Planet has posted a clip from the video here. Warning: It is graphic and could be disturbing to some viewers."