We are witnessing a campaign south of the border to diminish journalism. It is tactical: News reporting holds lawmakers and other powerful people accountable for their actions. At the same time, with the easy proliferation of conspiracy sites and Russian bots on social media, it is becoming more difficult to separate the real from the unreal news.
This is why it is important to be transparent about how journalists work and about the standards of news gathering. At The Globe, you see those standards, and that transparency about mistakes, in the regular Corrections on page A2; and online, attached to articles.
There is also an Editorial Code of Conduct that readers can access on the bottom right-hand corner of the homepage of Globeandmail.com. This year, after almost five years, it was time for a refresh and update of that code.
Its basic principles are unchanged. As the code itself makes clear, it is published "as a road map to clarify the boundaries between ethical and unethical journalism. The Globe and Mail sets a high bar for its editorial staff."
For several months, a group of editors and reporters at The Globe (including me) reviewed the code's wording, studied other professional journalism codes, consulted with staff, and then sent a draft proposal to Editor-in-Chief David Walmsley.
It is ultimately the editor's code, and he approved a number of changes. "This document is the updated ethical road map governing all journalists employed by The Globe and Mail. The review was an extensive, months-long process by many staff and that process highlights the conscientiousness and determination of all people employed by The Globe to get things right. It is equally important that our rules are clear and available to scrutiny," Mr. Walmsley noted. "We sometimes stumble and it is at the heart of this news organization that when we err, we fix the mistake."
Below are some key points about the updated code.
Reporters, in the search for facts, may press insiders to give them confidential documents. Such documents are often better than relying on interviews, but reporters still need to verify that a document is legitimate. So, this sentence was added to the code: "In cases of leaked documents, we have an obligation to make every reasonable effort to confirm the veracity of the document."
The Globe has gone to great lengths to protect whistle-blowers. In 2010, the newspaper argued at the Supreme Court of Canada for The Globe's right to protect the confidentiality of a source, and the right of reporter Daniel Leblanc to continue his key work on the sponsorship scandal involving the federal Liberals. The lower-court judge had said the media have no right to share a tip from someone who wasn't supposed to leak it. The Globe disagreed, arguing that there was an important right for the public to know. The newspaper won.
Also a few years ago, the Ontario Press Council heard and dismissed a complaint against The Globe for its story on allegations of drug involvement by Toronto city councillor Doug Ford. The council said that the paper had followed appropriate journalistic guidelines with regard to anonymous sources. The allegations that Mr. Ford sold hashish as a young man were subject to months of investigation and interviews, as well as the checking of court records and other sources. Journalists Greg McArthur and Shannon Kari interviewed 10 people, some of them many times, who had direct knowledge but were afraid to go on the record.
These are just two key stories that needed anonymous sourcing to be told. In hearing the sponsorship case, writing for the court, Mr. Justice Louis LeBel said that "some form of legal protection for the confidential relationship between journalists and their anonymous sources is required." And while that seems iron-clad, recent events have shown there are external factors beyond journalists' control that may impede their ability to completely protect their sources.
Last year, it was reported that six Quebec journalists had their cellphones monitored by provincial law enforcement for years. So, the code was updated to say that "we must make clear to sources that anonymity may, on rare occasions, be compromised beyond our control due to external factors." (It's worth reminding readers and potential whistle-blowers that The Globe uses a confidential Secure Drop service – Tgam.ca/securedrop – by which readers can submit anonymous tips.)
One other point. The code has always been clear that anonymous statements are not to be used to take potshots at people. That language has been further strengthened: "Direct quotes should not be attributed to anonymous sources but should be paraphrased and cannot include personal attacks. In rare circumstances a direct anonymous quote can be allowed with the approval of a senior editorial manager."
Right of reply
This principle has always been part of good journalism, but again the committee felt it was important to beef it up: "In the interests of transparency and trust, reporters have a responsibility to extend a right of reply to the key subjects of their stories on the central aspects of the piece prior to publication. If those key subjects cannot be reached in a reasonable time, the article must explain what efforts were made to reach them."
The Globe's practice has been that it generally does not remove content other than for legal reasons. But it is adding this to the code to explain the process. "Inquiries for a possible exception to this rule must be made in writing to firstname.lastname@example.org. A committee of editors and lawyers will review the request and there will be a response. Any decision to remove any content will be made by the editor-in-chief."
When it comes to the issue of meals, if a reporter is interviewing a source, the code says that The Globe pays whenever possible. But if one of our journalists has lunch regularly with a source, the source might want to pay once in a while, and that is okay. The guiding principle is that a journalist not be beholden to anyone.
The other part of the discounted world involves sections such as Travel or Drive, where it is a common industry practice for groups to offer discounted trips or perhaps a hotel stay for review purposes. These are acceptable, with the approval of an editorial manager, for certain non-news-related features. What has been added is guidance for managers to consider: whether the travel is required to do the assignment; who is footing the bill; and whether the journalist brings expertise that warrants the assignment. Regardless, there should be "a disclosure to the reader that accompanies the article as to the discounted or free services."
The basic rule here has always been to behave as you would in your work as a Globe journalist. "Do not post partisan, defamatory or clearly false material. You must not post personal attacks and should conduct yourself in a professional and respectful manner." That last sentence was added to underscore the previous policy.
The principle here has always been that the news operation must not only be, but seen to be, impartial. The old code said that, for those who write or may be called on to write about politics, and for editors who handle such coverage, certain things such as political contributions, party memberships, marches, demonstrations, online petitions, lapel buttons and lawn signs are not acceptable.
Since that was written, though, the world has changed. So much political activity happens online. So, the code has been updated: "While private views expressed through voting or with family and close friends are acceptable, political or partisan views which go beyond your public-facing role should not be expressed in public. Staffers should be aware that even in private settings on social media, information can become public. Involvement in a political campaign at any level will not be approved."
Regarding marches, it says that taking part in protest or political marches and demonstrations is out unless preapproved by a senior manager. There was much discussion about the difference between a protest march and a community march such as Pride or the Khalsa Day Parade that celebrates the Sikh New Year. In adding the preapproval requirement, the code allows managers to ask if such a march would tend to promote doubt about The Globe's impartiality in terms of both issues and politics.
This is a key area, especially for business journalists and senior editors. There are laws against insider trading, and The Globe also has its own standards. One angry reader (yes, I get a few!) wondered recently if a columnist was "in cahoots" with short-sellers. In fact, The Globe strictly prohibits staff from short-selling or using derivatives to bet against companies.
The code also makes it clear that staff members should not write about or handle any content about companies whose securities they own. It also lays down very strict rules on trading. "Staff members who have advance knowledge of specific investment news should not make a securities transaction related to that news until it has been published for a full market day."
These rules are set in place, as the code says, to protect the credibility of The Globe but also to protect staff and regular freelancers from charges of conflict of interest. "The general principle: No one should benefit personally from knowledge obtained as a Globe and Mail journalist until that knowledge is in the public domain."
There is much more, and limited space here, but I would welcome you to read the code. And should you see anything in the paper that you believe is in contravention of these principles, please let me know. This is your code, written for readers to hold The Globe accountable. I welcome all questions and complaints.