Guidelines for Balancing Business Pressures and Journalism Values
"Professional electronic journalists should gather and report news without fear or favor, and vigorously resist undue influence from any outside forces, including advertisers, sources, story subjects, powerful individuals and special-interest groups." The Radio Television Digital News Association declared this traditional journalistic value when it revised the RTDNA Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct in September 2000. Times of economic pressure test that value, challenging journalists to see it anew-and to practice it in new ways.
To do so, journalists, news managers and business-side managers must develop shared values, clear guidelines and practical protocols that serve the dual goals of journalistic independence and commercial success. Managers should welcome and solicit concerns from any staff member who feels pressure to compromise journalistic principles in the name of commercial interests.
News reporting and decision-making should be free of inappropriate commercial influences. If electronic journalists weaken their commitment to journalistic principles and public service in exchange for financial gains, credibility erodes and the audience will turn away.
Responsibility for protecting news content from improper influences rests not just with news directors, but also with everyone at the station or network.
The following standards should be applied to content-related decisions on air and online:
- News operations should not show favoritism to advertisers. It should be clear to all advertisers that they have no influence over news content.
- Professional electronic journalists should expose unethical or illegal business practices, but should not target businesses unfairly.
- Content should be generated based on journalistic merits and not solely as an advertising vehicle.
- The most important professional responsibility of an electronic journalist is to report the news. Everything else comes second.
- News directors should carefully consider instances when ratings and demographics drive coverage decisions and ensure that news coverage remains journalistically sound and serves the public interest.
- News organizations should protect the integrity of coverage against any potential conflict of interest arising from station owners' commercial or other interests.
- Coverage of a promotional or commercial event that an advertiser or station sponsors should be proportional to the event's newsworthiness.
- Stations or networks should foster a high degree of communication, collaboration, respect and trust among station leaders and staff members. Business-side managers should be encouraged to understand that journalistic independence and credibility are among the station's most precious commodities.
- News directors should insist that newsroom employees do not accept gifts, favors or other compensation from those who might seek to influence coverage.
- A news operation's online product should clearly separate commercial and editorial content and maintain the same high journalistic and ethical standards as the on-air product.
- Professional electronic journalists should tell their audiences why and how they made decisions, especially if the public might perceive that journalistic independence has been compromised.
Through RTDNF's Journalism Ethics Project, Bob Steele, senior faculty and ethics group leader, and Al Tompkins, broadcast and online group leader, The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, created these guidelines.