The Journalism Code of Practice
The Fourth Estate's Journalism Code of Practice is for anyone seeking to create ethical, principled journalism, regardless of their background, employment status or means of delivery. This code is equally relevant for professional journalists and for those outside the profession who are seeking to report honestly and fairly on the events and issues relevant to their community.
- The Ethical Standards of Journalism
- The Standards in Practice
- A Final Word on “Opinion”
- About the Code
The mission of the Fourth Estate is to contribute to a healthy society by fostering, supporting, and incubating a sustainable and vibrant free press.
The only sustainable free press is an ethical free press.
The Fourth Estate recognizes three core principles that are fundamental to the ethical practice of journalism:
- Reporting the TRUTH
- Ensuring TRANSPARENCY
- Serving the COMMUNITY
These three principles form the basis of a more detailed Code of Practice for anyone seeking to create ethical, principled journalism, regardless of their background, employment status, or means of delivery.
This code is equally relevant for professional journalists and for those outside the profession who are seeking to report honestly and fairly on the events and issues relevant to their community.
The first section of this code spells out each of the standards.
The second section explains the practical steps you should take at every stage of the work you do as a journalist to ensure that you abide by these standards.
The Ethical Standards of Journalism
Accuracy, moreso than exclusivity or timeliness, is the overriding value of journalism.
- Ensure that all the facts in your work are accurate.
- Do not omit facts that are material to an understanding of what you are reporting on.
- Context is often critical to accurate reporting. Ensure that adequate context is provided.
- Clearly distinguish between fact and assertion or opinion.
Independence from state control, business interests, market forces, or any other vested interest or outside pressure is a hallmark of dispassionate, critical, and reliable journalism. It bolsters legitimacy and credibility in the eyes of the public.
- Make your own editorial judgments based only on careful consideration of all the facts.
- Do not allow yourself to be influenced by political, sectional, or commercial interests.
- Declare and manage any conflicts of interest, including gifts, funding, advertising relationships, and free or discounted travel or services.
Impartiality means not being prejudiced towards or against any particular ideology, idea, or preconception. Impartiality requires fairness and balance that follows the weight of evidence: it allows the journalist to make sense of events through dispassionate analysis of all relevant facts and perspectives.
- Treat all facts the same, making editorial judgments and delivering analysis based only on the weight of evidence.
- Do not allow your own views, preferences, biases, or prejudgements to affect your work. Set them aside.
- Do not simply recite lists of facts or engage in false balance: weigh the evidence and reflect that weight of evidence in your work.
- Aim to include an appropriate diversity of views, and accord those views the space warranted by their prominence and significance.
Integrity in journalism ensures that people and organizations uphold the values of journalism, always strive to do the right thing in all situations, even to their personal or organizational detriment, and put their obligations to the public first.
- Treat those you deal with in your work with respect and courtesy.
- Always identify yourself as a journalist, unless withholding disclosure is essential to uncovering the truth in a matter of public importance.
- As far as possible, look for opportunities to “show your workings,” sharing with the public the underlying information you have gathered.
- The use of any form of secret information gathering (hidden cameras, secret recording devices, etc…) may be justifiable if it is essential to uncovering the truth in a matter of public importance.
- Provide anyone accused of misbehavior a reasonable opportunity to respond.
- Attribute information to its source unless that source needs to be protected to ensure the truth can be uncovered in a matter of public importance. Where a source needs anonymity, provide it.
- Do not plagiarize.
Journalists must always remember that they are dealing with human lives. The potential for public good must sufficiently outweigh the potential for harm that may come from the activity of journalism.
- Be mindful that your work may contain content that causes harm. Carefully consider how you proceed to ensure that undue harm is not caused.
- Avoid the gratuitous use of offensive, confronting, or harm-inducing sounds, imagery, or words.
- Respect people’s reasonable rights to privacy unless they are outweighed by the need to report on a matter of public importance.
- Show sensitivity when dealing with children, victims of crime, or people who are especially vulnerable due, for example, to trauma, injury, illness, or other factors.
Engagement with the public ensures that journalism remains open, accessible, collaborative, and participatory while keeping the journalist accountable to the highest standards of accuracy, independence, impartiality, and integrity.
- Your decisions on what work to do should be based on what is relevant and newsworthy to the community you serve.
- Establish and maintain open communications with the community.
- Seek input and ideas from the community before, during, and after completing your work.
Accountability is essential to the ethical practice of journalism and the maintenance of the public trust. Being accountable for news-gathering practices and reporting means making firm commitments and taking responsibility for your journalism and the journalism of your peers.
- Seek and carefully consider the feedback you receive from the community about your work.
- Respond constructively to any complaints, particularly those related to matters raised in relation to these standards.
- Where errors or potentially incomplete or misleading information is found, corrections or clarifications should be made promptly, prominently, and transparently.
- Where no errors or incomplete or misleading information is found, your work should not be altered or removed in any material way in response to pressure from outside interests.
The Standards in Practice
Consult this guide at every stage of your work to ensure you are observing the best standards of public interest journalism.
Finding a Story
The most important reason to cover any story is that it is relevant and newsworthy to the community you serve.
Before you proceed with any story, these are the questions you need to ask yourself:
How do I know the community I am working on behalf of would find this story/issue/event relevant and newsworthy?
Sometimes you may have an opportunity, through research, use of social media, or even polling, to gain an insight into what is in the public interest for your community. In other situations, it may be enough to simply rely on your own experience and understanding of the community. But the important thing is to take the time to assess the story and satisfy yourself that it is relevant and newsworthy.
Am I being influenced by any outside vested interest in deciding to pursue this story?
There is no shortage of politicians, activists, commercial organizations, or powerful individuals who want to put information (or disinformation or misinformation, for that matter) into the public domain to serve their own interests. Journalism is not in the business of serving those interests, so resist any attempts to cover a story in order to suit the aims of special groups or individuals.
Are my own views and preferences interfering with my ability to cover a story fairly and impartially?
Before you ask hard questions of anyone else, ask them of yourself. What baggage am I bringing to this issue? Do I have blind spots, settled perspectives, or prejudices I haven’t been aware of or paid sufficient attention to? What am I assuming? Do I have strong views of my own that may color my ability to weigh the facts dispassionately?
Everyone has their own subjective views. The challenge for any good journalist is to be aware of them, allow for them, and make every effort to set them aside and report on the facts, weighing the evidence and presenting it fairly.
Preparing a Story
Once you begin working on a story, you need to gather and assess information in a way that meets the best standards of journalism.
These are the questions you should ask yourself:
Am I ensuring that all the information I gather is accurate?
As a reporter, your role is to search out and include all of the relevant facts. That means not relying on what you have heard secondhand or what is included in a media release or something you have read online. It means directly chasing and uncovering facts as far as possible, either by research or by directly witnessing events firsthand. A fact is something that can be corroborated.
Have I included all the material facts that are needed to understand the story?
Do not use facts selectively to suit a certain argument or perspective. Include all relevant facts and context. The narrative is drawn from the facts, not the other way round.
Am I weighing up and scrutinizing the facts?
Journalists are not stenographers, and they are not parrots. Journalism does not involve simply collecting and regurgitating information. At the heart of journalism is an editorial process, whereby a journalist must weigh and assess the information they gather, deciding what is important and what is not based on the weight of evidence.
Am I keeping an open mind?
As you go about your work, it is worth reminding yourself again that you need, as much as possible, to set aside your own personal views on an issue and not allow them to color your newsgathering.
Am I seeking a wide range of views?
Journalism is not just about gathering facts. It is also about gathering perspectives.
You should apply equal scrutiny to all views, whether they are ones you feel a personal affinity towards or not. Equal scrutiny does not mean equal time — perspectives that are not factually accurate or do not stand up to proper scrutiny will not and should not be accorded the same weight as those that do.
Who am I likely to offend or harm with this story, and could/should that be avoided?
The process of journalism can involve invading people’s privacy, asking intrusive or confronting questions, raising issues, uncovering facts which can be offensive, violent or upsetting, and interacting with people who are traumatized, grieving, unwell or vulnerable in myriad other ways.
By way of example, if your story is uncovering corruption or wrongdoing, then confronting those accused may well cause them great offense or harm their families, friends, and supporters, but the significance of the story clearly justifies the offense. But if you are covering a tragedy such as a cyclone or a wildfire, speaking respectfully and carefully to survivors and victims can be an important part of depicting the enormity and the consequences of the event, but care needs to be taken to balance the need to illustrate the story with the need not to exacerbate the suffering or grief of those involved. If you are reporting an issue like animal cruelty or violent crime, powerful images exposing the behavior may be necessary to establish what is happening, but you may still need to carefully select the images and edit them to get the balance right between telling the story and not causing undue offense to your audience.
Am I treating the sources in my story appropriately?
Ordinarily, you should transparently acknowledge that you are a journalist working on a story. There will be rare occasions where this is not appropriate. They include:
- Where a source comes to you with confidential information and wishes to remain anonymous. The granting of anonymity should be the exception, not the rule, and should only occur when the granting of anonymity is essential to uncover the truth.
- Where you yourself need to operate discreetly or covertly in order to uncover the truth. This could involve secret recording or filming, or seeking information without first disclosing you are acting as a journalist. Once again, this should be the exception rather than the rule and should only occur when a story is of significant public importance, and the relevant information cannot be gained any other way. This covert operating method should be transparently disclosed once the story is published, broadcast, or shared.
Publishing/Broadcasting/Sharing a Story
Inevitably, when it comes time to write or record your work, decisions need to be made. Editing will take place for reasons of time, available space, or clarity. It is essential that the integrity of the work is retained throughout this process.
These are the questions you should ask yourself:
Am I sharing as much as possible of the underlying source material for this story?
Online reporting, in particular, has provided new opportunities for journalists to share links to background information, source documents, and other research material with the public. Apart from the need to protect confidential sources, the more that relevant documentation is provided to the public, the more that trust in the processes of journalism is enhanced.
Has the editing process made the story inaccurate or unbalanced?
The most carefully researched piece of work can suffer when it is written and edited. Journalists need to retain oversight of their work throughout the editing process. They also must ensure that any alterations or cuts do not undermine the fundamental accuracy of the story or the proper representation of all relevant perspectives.
Are the headlines, social media posts, and all versions of the story true to the original version?
A headline should not mislead or undermine the essence of a story — they are often read by people who do not go on to read the full story. Similarly, shorter versions, excerpts, or summaries of stories that are posted on social media or other platforms should not be inaccurate or misleading in the way that they summarize or select from the original story.
After the story
One of the key principles of journalism is to be accountable to the community you serve, and this is just as important after a story has been published as it is during the preparation of a story.
These are the questions you should ask yourself:
Am I monitoring the reaction to my work to look for further information and new story ideas?
No matter how thorough your research is, no journalist can know everything about a topic. Engagement and feedback from the community in the wake of a story can provide valuable new information, fresh leads, and new story ideas.
Do I have a transparent process to allow people to complain about my story?
Being accountable to and working on behalf of the community involves being open to criticism. Where that criticism involves allegations that any of the standards in this code have been breached, such complaints need to be carefully and honestly considered.
Do I need to correct or clarify anything?
Infallible journalists are impossible to find, but the transparent acknowledgment and correction of errors where they occur is one of the most important ways of building trust with the community you are accountable to. If your work is inaccurate or deficient, correct it. If it is incomplete or potentially misleading, add clarification. At all times, be transparent about what changes have been made and why.
Am I changing my story for the wrong reasons?
Stories can and should be changed if they are found to be in breach of this code, or if there are legitimate legal reasons for their alteration or removal. Apart from that, stories, once published, broadcast, or posted should, not be changed in material ways due to pressure from vested interests who may be angry, embarrassed, or distressed by the truth.
A Final Word on “Opinion”
All of the ethical standards outlined above relate to factual reporting, where it is important for journalists to commit themselves to work accurately and impartially, setting aside their own views or any other partisan interests and weighing up the facts as fairly and objectively as possible.
Reporting the news includes fair and fact-based analysis, but it precludes journalists from inserting their own opinions without clearly flagging that.
However, journalism can and does include the writing of opinion pieces, often in the form (for example) of regular columns or pieces of “editorializing.” Opinion can be included where it is clearly marked and where it does not interfere with or influence the reporting.
However, although they are opinion pieces, it is wrong to assume that they are not bound by any of the usual ethical standards of journalism.
The common cry is, “This is an opinion piece. It’s my opinion. I can write whatever I want.”
This is not the case. There is bad opinion writing and good opinion writing, and journalists would do well to leave the bad opinion writing to someone else.
Bad opinion writing will misrepresent the facts, misrepresent the views of others, mislead in the way it draws conclusions, and use inflammatory or intemperate language to whip up emotion and cloud the ability of readers to make their own judgments.
A journalist who writes an opinion piece is given the license to provide his/her own views and selectively highlight the evidence, issues, or facts that he/she personally considers to be the most significant and the most telling. An ethical journalist who writes an opinion piece will still ensure the piece has integrity.
When contributing an opinion article, these are the questions you should ask yourself:
- Is everything that I have presented in my opinion piece as a “fact” accurate?
- Have I transparently declared any conflicts of interest or vested interests I may have in relation to the issue I am expressing an opinion on?
- Have I considered any undue harm or offense my work may cause and looked for ways to minimize it that do not undermine the integrity of the work?
- Have I favored sound arguments and evidence over rhetoric and bombast in the way the work is constructed?
About the Code
The Journalism Code of Practice is principally authored by Alan Sunderland — as Journalism Advocate for the Fourth Estate — and in collaboration with W. Jeffrey Brown. It is considered a living document that should be reviewed, revised and amended as necessary.
The Journalism Code of Practice by the Fourth Estate is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://www.FourthEstate.org.