Every week, I hear from readers who want to know how news decisions have been made. Why was a photo chosen? Can the organization be fair to a political party if the editorial board has supported that party? As part of that ongoing conversation, it's important that readers have a sense of the ethical guidelines The Globe and Mail gives to writers and editors, the organization's principles and practices.
Questions about journalistic ethics have become even more urgent in the past few years, as Rupert Murdoch's News of the World closed after charges of illegal phone hacking, including the cellphone of murdered school girl Milly Dowler. Just this week, the deputy editor of The Sun newspaper in Britain was charged with authorizing payments to public officials.
The intersection of journalism and social media has only added to the complexity. When the BBC mistakenly implicated Lord McAlpine in a child-abuse case, he sued not only the news organizations but hundreds of Twitter users who remarked on their story.
So how do journalists navigate such tricky territory? Like many news organizations, The Globe has a code of conduct – guiding principles for writers and editors, and a clear statement for readers about what the standards are.
In 1998, the code of conduct was published as part of the Style Book, a comprehensive look at grammar, style and usage at the paper. The book was given to staff and available for sale to the public. But the Style Book is no longer printed and the code has been almost impossible to find online, so senior print and digital editors at the paper recently decided to update the code – including the language on social media, which was hopelessly out of date – and to make it easily accessible online.
The new code is meant to be a "road map" to ethical journalism. The opening paragraph acknowledges that "journalistic integrity and credibility" is essential to The Globe's reputation, and that that reputation is rooted in how the editorial team operates. The first rule for that team maintains the same essential principle as earlier versions: that "journalistic accuracy, fairness and clarity should be the guiding principles of editorial staff in any public forum, online or otherwise."
Now, however, the organization also addresses how social media are used both to gather information and connect with readers. And how, per Lord McAlpine, even for 140-character Tweets, Facebook updates and Pinterest posts, the basic standards of fairness and responsibility must apply. The new code of conduct carefully reminds staff that they are personally responsible for information they publish and that "hate speech and personal attacks … are unacceptable." While the tone can be quite different on social media, readers should expect the same standards of journalism as in The Globe's pages.
As Editor-in-Chief John Stackhouse explains, "This edition of our editorial code of conduct addresses some of the profound changes that have swept through journalism in the last half-decade. The code, along with our craft, will continue to evolve, and we welcome our readers' input to help make our journalism impeccable."
The bar, quite rightly, is set very high. Journalism is a very public profession and it is important that our readers understand our standards. I was part of a staff committee that went through the code and recommended changes to the senior editorial managers. Part of my job as public editor is to explain the code standards to readers.
If you have any questions on the principles of the code or on any other issue, please send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org