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Being impartial and being seen to be impartial

Image courtesy of US Pacific Command released under Creative Commons

Allegations are made about an incompetent medical surgeon and a subsequent cover up at a hospital. People have died. Your news editor asks you to investigate. The only problem is – the surgeon is your uncle. What do you do?

  1. Investigate the surgeon thoroughly. The fact he is a relative will not deter you from doing your duty as a journalist.
  2. Try to dissuade your news editor against the story. You know your uncle to be a competent and committed surgeon. Sometimes things go wrong during operations and patients die.
  3. Tell your news editor that you are related to the person in question and ask for someone else to be assigned to the story.

Answer 3 is correct: It is difficult to be a hundred percent impartial when dealing with stories about family or friends. Also, public perception is important. Even if you do investigate the allegations thoroughly and write the story – your audience still has to believe that your professional integrity was not compromised. By separating yourself from the story at the outset the audience can continue to trust your news organisation. 

If you want to know more about this topic please see our training module Impartiality in Journalism.

Impartiality in journalism

Naomi GoldsmithThe author of this piece, Naomi Goldsmith, is a journalism trainer and media consultant. She has worked with the BBC, Internews, and Deutsche Welle and now trains journalists and media managers worldwide.

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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 at the top of this piece courtesy of US Pacific Command released under Creative Commons

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