An Ethics Primer

As one of the contributing editors at New Assignment, I've been asked to write a primer on journalistic ethics. No doubt some of you will see those two words as a bit of an oxymoron. Fair enough. Professional journalists have certainly had their fair share of ethical scandals in recent years. But, one of the reasons why professional journalists still remain leery of citizen journalism is worry over adherence to the somewhat unwritten rules of journalistic ethics. The conclusions I've drawn after 20 years as a journalist is the same that I often tell my students: I can give you advice but ultimately the ethics you follow will be those of your own internal moral compass.

So, with that in mind, here is a Top 10 list of Ethical Do's and Don'ts:

1. Don't Fabricate. Don't make things up -- words, interviews, people. This is pretty much a show-stopper. If you're coming to take part in open source journalism and you're making things up, well, that really hurts the whole philosophy of what we're trying to do. As members of Assignment Zero, you should understand that we have a fact-checking team in place and we will check out the information you submit. So, if you fabricate, we're going to find out before publishing your information.

2. Minimize Harm. The Society of Professional Journalists says it best in their Code of Ethics: "Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect."

3. No gratuities allowed. This is always a good debate topic with students. If you go out to lunch with a source, should you allow the source to pick up the check? Gifts from a source? Drinks? Remember, perception counts. You don't want a source to think that you owe them one. Pick up the check. Thanks but no thanks to gifts or favors of any kind.

4. Sourcing, Part 1. Who can be a source? Friend? Girlfriend? Spouse? Family member? Co-worker? Avoid conflicts of interest wherever possible. Quote a friend? Try digging deeper, find people who don't know you that you can quote.

5. Sourcing, Part 2. How many sources do you need? At least two, but the more the merrier. Your information, story, gains more credence if you have more sources confirming what you're writing. Don't forget to quote the other side as well. Sure, quote 4 people who say crowdsourcing is the future of journalism, but what about the critics?

6. Anonymity. Ah, anonymity. The editors here have had quite a lively conversation on anonymity. Personally, I'm not a big fan. And, for the purposes of what we're trying to do with Assignment Zero, I can't see a situation where there would be a justifiable need to provide anonymity for a source. Providing anonymity for a whistleblower blowing the lid off government malfeasance? Sure. But, you have a bit of a dichotomy with our attempts here. The Web, and the many conversations sparked, has largely been through anonymity, or at least through pseudonyms. So, how do you mesh the free-flowing, "let the conversation flow no matter what" system of the Web with the more traditional ethos of professional journalists. For me, I've always found that you can find the information elsewhere. If one person won't go on the record, go find a person who will. And, if that person won't go on the record, tell them that the information may not get out unless they go on record. If it's important enough, the person will go on the record.

7. Conflicts of Interest. Should educators be writing about crowdsourcing education? Sure. Should educators be writing about their school? Sure, as long as there is full disclosure. As a former editor at The Washington Post's Web site, I've written about developments there several times since leaving last Fall. But, I let readers know of my association. Where it gets murkier is where financial interests are involved. Should you be writing about Google if you own substantial stock there? If you think you have a conflict of interest, you probably do. Look for other assignments.

8. Identification. Let people know who you are and what you're doing. If you're trying to track down someone for an interview, it will be difficult to get your phone calls returned, but be straight with what you're trying to do. Always identify yourself before talking to someone, not afterwards.

9. Advocacy. Traditionally, journalists avoid being associated with advocacy groups. The editor at The Washington Post doesn't vote to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. I'm a huge Bruce Springsteen fan and I did not go see him during his last tour since many viewed it as a pro-Kerry fundraising vehicle. Use your best discretion. If you're asking yourself whether you should take part in something, than the answer is probably no.

10. Fabrication. #1 rule is always worth re-visiting: Don't make anything up.

Good luck!