Does fairness in journalism matter?
Why fairness is important
Fairness in journalism means exploring all sides of an issue and reporting the findings accurately. Members of the public should never be used to exaggerate the importance of a story.
As a journalist you have a responsibility to examine your motives and ensure that your own personal feelings and emotions do not influence what you report, who you talk to, or determine which elements of the story you highlight.
You also need to think carefully about the language and tone you use to ensure that it doesn't give an inaccurate and unfair representation of the facts.
Your job is to inform the public debate, not manipulate that debate. You are working on behalf of the public, not using them for your own ends.
A journalist should have no motivation other than presenting sourced and verified facts. You should not have a desired outcome - that's activism. And some would argue that journalism and activism are not compatible. You do your job regardless of the outcome.
Right of reply
You should always offer the right of reply when making allegations. However, there will be some cases where this rule needs to be checked with senior editorial colleagues.
If, for example, you uncover information that you consider to be in the public interest and involves serious allegations against an individual or group, it might not be appropriate to approach those who are the focus of the piece of investigative journalism. This is particularly important if the information could lead to criminal arrest.
In most cases, the fact that a person is being interviewed is sufficient to prove informed consent. However, care needs to be taken when dealing with young people, the vulnerable and those who have been recently bereaved or have suffered from trauma.
Those you are going to quote must be told when the material will be used, in what context and how the material will be used.
This is particularly important with broadcasters and with any media organisation operating a converged newsroom pushing content to multiple devices. It may seem obvious to you that the material will be searchable on the web and viewed worldwide, but your contributor may not have thought this through, especially if they are under stress. It is only fair to point it out.
If the member of the public is making a significant contribution, on which the whole item or broadcast programme is based, this needs to be made absolutely clear to them. They have a right to know:
- if there is a discussion or debate surrounding their contribution and, if so, the range of views being represented and the likely contributors.
- whether their contribution is live or edited and when it is likely to be broadcast (be careful not to give assurances if the broadcast time could change).
- a broad outline of the way you see the discussion going (your reasons for doing the piece).
- any changes leading up to broadcast or publication.
You do not need to let them see any pre-recorded material, even if they are involved. If a preview is requested, you need to examine the editorial, legal and ethical reasons for this.
Right of reply
In cases where there are allegations of wrongdoing, you need to offer a fair opportunity for people to respond to allegations before broadcast or publication.
When seeking a response, you need to keep accurate records of when, how and where the person was approached along with their response to the offer.
That response needs to be broadcast in the same programme, or at the same time, as the allegation is made. Again, legal reasons might override this.
Contributors sometimes try to impose conditions before agreeing to take part in interviews. You must retain editorial control and not enter into any agreement that stops you asking the questions your audience would expect you to pose.
It is unlikely that it would ever be appropriate to broadcast or publish an interview in which the contributor sets out what s/he is prepared to be interviewed about. However, if such a case arises it must be made clear to the audience the conditions that were set in order to obtain the interview.
The contributor must also be told that you will be making this clear before and after the interview is aired. They need to understand that journalists deal with news and are not public relations consultants offering a PR platform.
In some cases, people who have already been interviewed will decide to withdraw their consent. You should consider their objections, but whether you use the material or not is an editorial decision and must be based on whether it is in the public interest to publish the material.
You should be open to signing agreements for access to premises or to talk to staff, but you must examine the agreements closely to ensure that they do not involve the surrendering of editorial control. To do so would compromise your editorial integrity.
The same is true of indemnity forms. In all cases, if unacceptable conditions are imposed, you should withdraw from the project.
You should never ask contributors to expose themselves to health and safety risks, and they must make clear in writing that they recognise and accept any risks.
You are there to inform and serve the audience, not exploit and use the audience.
The author of this piece, David Brewer, is a journalist and media strategy consultant who founded Media Helping Media. David has worked as a journalist and manager in print, broadcast and online. He has spent many years delivering journalism training and media consultancy services worldwide.
This site has been given permission to use and adapt elements of the BBC's Editorial Guidelines in these short editorial ethics modules. They have been updated to reflect changing international, regional and cultural variations.
Image courtesy of Tori Rector and released under Creative Commons