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Let people know reporters’ rules of conduct

DISCUSSIONS | May 27, 2006

Katherine Harting

1979 Nieman fellow; ABC Evening News producer, Washington, D.C., on leave and currently a Ph. D. student and media specialist at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore.

I suggest news organizations post the "rules" by which their correspondents operate. If photos

cannot be staged, say so. If reporters may not accept gifts or favors valued above $x, say so.  If all assertions must be corroborated by a second source, say so. If the identity of unnamed sources must be divulged to editors, say so. If political reporters are rotated through to give them time to become expert but not enough time to become chummy, say so. Are they advised to pursue or avoid social contact with news subjects? 

My sense is that reputable news organizations handicap themselves with guidelines designed to ensure credibility – but not made public – in three ways:

1) the degree of difficulty is not appreciated;

2) the enhanced credibility of the resulting stories is not appreciated; and

3) the public, including the subjects being covered, cannot assist in monitoring reporters' adherence to the guidelines.

Making the rules known (in every newspaper, on every Web site and broadcast – very fine print, but every day; or summarized with a URL for details) would make attendance to news coverage more interesting, like watching a trial where the rules of evidence are known; or in law enforcement, where the public knows they have a right to remain silent and be read their Miranda rights; or an Olympic sports event, where the specifications used by judges in scoring an athletic performance are explicit. Editors are hard-pressed to supervise reporters in the field, and the public can help, if we know the standards to which they are to be held. Football fans are very attentive because they know the rules and can spot a foul, sometimes more easily than a referee can. 

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