Responsible Journalism Cheat Sheet

credit: Roger H. Goun

Several themes consistently recur in my posts about good journalism. They’re spread out over about five years of posting, and it’s unrealistic to expect anyone to read everything to find them. So for your benefit, and even my own, I pull together some quick tips that every news gatherer should strongly consider adopting as part of his or her daily routine.

News reporting isn’t a profession but a lifestyle. Ethics you adopt shape it—and you. 

1. Write what you know to be true. That means from sources you engage. You should gather information directly, rather than reference some post somewhere on the Internet. What you know to be true may change, for numerous reasons, like developing news events. That is different from, say, sourcing a blog claiming Barack Obama is an alien—not from another country but outer space—and that assertion later proves to be false.

2. Ask: “Who benefits? Everyone wants something. If a PR person presents information or someone requests to guest post, ask what will they gain. If someone leaks you information, you have to wonder why. “Who benefits?” means everything in news gathering.

3. Remember: Most people lie. Former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee makes the point better than I could: “There is a lot of spinning and a lot of lying in our times—in politics, in government, in sports and everywhere. It’s gotten to a point where, if you are like me, you no longer believe the first version of anything”. This truth—that most people lie—is one reason why the “Who benefits?” is so important to ask about everything.

4. Write for people, not for Google. Let me ask a question: Whom do your write for? “Google”, “search engines”, or “pageviews” are all the wrong answers, if your profession is news gathering. Even people sharing rumors on Facebook write for other folks, whose comments the posters seek. The news gatherer who worships at the search engine altar is a slave.

5. Be a trusted source of information. Contrary to traditional journalism school convention, trust trumps truth—although the two are intimately intertwined. Readers must trust you, which is best achieved by producing accurate original content that matters to them. If you don’t directly source, you aren’t trustworthy. If you misreport, you can’t be trusted. You pass your trust in sources onto the audience. There’s nothing reliable to give, if those sources aren’t your own.

6. Don’t be a link farmer. Aggregation is not journalism and often is plagiarism. Grow your own original content rather than harvest someone else’s. You’ll better build audience, and serve it! I used to love Boy Genius Report for its reliable scoops. Now the site is more a link farmer recapping others’ stories. BGR has lost my interest and trust.

7. Avoid objects of conflict. Bias is unavoidable; you will never write objectively but nevertheless can try by reporting what you know to be true in the moment. However, you can—and absolutely should—avoid anything that obviously impairs impartiality. The traditional term is “conflict of interest”, which I modernize to prioritize “objects of conflict”, and the obligations or benefits related to them.

The closer is your relationship to the object of conflict, the more likely there will be influence. Conflict of interest is directly proportional to obligation. As the benefit you receive from the object of conflict rises, potential influence increases. The object could be financial, such as gains from stock owned in a company you report about. But it’s my experience that people are the objects wielding the most influence. Mind your human relationships!

Photo Credit: Roger H. Goun