The CAJ’s ethics advisory committee considers and provides advice on ethical issues faced by journalists through the course of their regular work. Members are appointed by the CAJ’s national board of directors, and the chair or co-chairs are appointed by the board from among the committee’s members.

The ethics advisory committee is currently chaired by Western University’s Meredith Levine.

The rest of the committee’s current members are:

Dale Bass
Kamloops This Week
Marc-François Bernier
University of Ottawa
Patrick Brethour
Brunswick News
Bert Bruser
Toronto Star
Jeffrey Dvorkin
University of Toronto
Patricia Graham
Brunswick News
Deborah Jones
Independent writer
Kirk LaPointe
Self-Counsel Press
Matt Lundy
The Globe and Mail
Jack Nagler
Ken Partridge
Advocate Media
Karyn Pugliese
Shauna Snow-Capparelli
Mount Royal University
Lisa Taylor
Ryerson University


Learn more about the committee’s work by browsing its catalogue of policies, discussion papers and reports on key journalism issues.


The CAJ's widely cited Ethics Guidelines are intended to help both seasoned professionals and new journalists to hold themselves accountable for professional work. While many specific questions are considered here, it is impossible to capture all potential scenarios in a document such as this. Instead, it seeks to provide examples of the application of our general ethical principles, and to help journalists apply those principles and their best judgment when faced with scenarios not covered here.

See also: Principles for Ethical Journalism


Best Practices in digital accuracy and corrections

How close is too close? Conflict of interest in journalists' relationships with sources

Paying for information

Naming sexual assault complainants in the media: Ethical considerations for journalists

Sponsored content: How should journalism ethics respond to advertising dressed up as journalism?

Online comment moderation

On the record: Is it really informed consent without discussion of consequences?

What is journalism?

Guidelines for personal activity online

Journalists seeking public office: What are the ethical issues?

The ethics of unpublishing

Guidelines for re-tweeting and re-posting on social media

Final briefing on news blackouts

Protection of sources

Policy paper on editorial independence

Scroll down for the latest announcements from the committee.

Newsrooms must confront sponsored content ethical dilemmas

OCT. 6, 2015 — Newsrooms must establish guidelines that clearly distinguish between what is journalism and what is advertising, says a new discussion paper from the Canadian Association of Journalists’ ethics advisory committee.

Content created to serve private interests is inherently different than content published in the public interest, says paper co-author Esther Enkin. “The CAJ ethics committee is clear that sponsored content does not meet the CAJ's own definition of journalism. But it's everywhere, and it's part of the working life of many of our colleagues,” she says.

“We hope this paper will spark a lively debate about the short and long term ethical implications of this ubiquitous model.”

Newsrooms confront two major ethical issues when it comes to sponsored content: potential deception of readers, and even self-deception within newsrooms; and conflict of interest involving journalists who both write critically and contribute to sponsored content on the same beat. The committee encourages newsrooms to acknowledge those issues and address them appropriately.

To read the discussion paper, click here.

The CAJ’s ethics advisory committee considers and provides advice on ethical issues faced by journalists through the course of their regular work. Members are appointed by the CAJ’s national board of directors, and the chair or co-chairs are appointed by the board from among the committee members.

The Canadian Association of Journalists is a professional organization with more than 600 members across Canada. The CAJ’s primary roles are public-interest advocacy work and professional development for its members.

For further information:
Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman and report co-author

Nick Taylor-Vaisey
CAJ president

Read More

On the record: Is it really informed consent without discussion of consequences?

Panel members: Meredith Levine (CHAIR), Kathy English, Esther Enkin and Julian Sher

A release goes out about a major new study linking increased reported cases of depression in young men to online gaming. A newsroom editor assigns a reporter with the command: “Get me a depressed gamer.” The reporter does indeed find a young man through connections, sends him a text identifying her and her news organization and requesting an interview. He agrees to tell his story. The day after the piece is posted online and sent out on Twitter, the young man is called into his boss’s office at the company where he’s worked for five years as a security guard. His depression makes him a liability on the job, he’s told as he’s handed a pink slip. The young man did not anticipate his conversation with the reporter could have negative consequences.

This is a hypothetical but plausible story that raises many tough questions about consent transactions between journalists and non-expert subjects.

That’s what the CAJ advisory committee discovered when we landed on the issue of informed consent, or, more specifically, on the methods journalists use to gain consent from their subjects and sources, especially those who are vulnerable and/or marginalized. We were caught between two really important competing values – serving the public interest and minimizing harm. Consent protocols felt like a rabbit hole that could undermine our ability to tell important stories.

Four panel members volunteered to take on the issue: Meredith Levine, a Western University journalism professor whose thesis focused on the issue- and three leading minds from the front lines of journalism practice  – Toronto Star Public Editor Kathy English, CBC Ombudsman Esther Enkin and Julian Sher, Senior Producer for CBC’s the Fifth Estate.  

We began the discussion by posing five questions:

  1. Does current media law on consent offer enough protection to subjects and sources?
  2. How big a risk is there for bad things to happen to people because they are interviewed by journalists?
  3. When it comes to vulnerable people, should journalists expand their role beyond public information provider to be advocate or caretaker?
  4. How should we balance the principle of serving the public with the idea of minimizing the harm we impose particularly on vulnerable and marginalized subjects?
  5. What proposals can we offer for doing a better job of consent with vulnerable and marginalized subjects?

As is perhaps to be expected, when views diverged, opinion split between the practitioners on one side and the educator on the other.  As we explored further, though, the conversation began to shift. We read through and debated a set of arguments supporting strengthened consent protocols provided by Meredith Levine. And as journalists and citizens, we witnessed the increasingly horrific impact of social media bullying on young people. As a result, several members came to recognize that the simple construction of public interest on the one side and the needs of subjects and sources on the other failed to satisfactorily address the risk of harm participating in journalism stories may pose for inexperienced and vulnerable sources.

We remain committed to serving the public interest, but we have come to recognize the need to be mindful in our approach to sources, and that in an environment where every action and utterance can be magnified through social media, we must think about sources in a different way.  The dialogue you are going to read here is an attempt to find a way that honours the value of public interest but is mindful of the potential harm.

Introduction to dialogue on consent            

Under Canadian law the only information a reporter must disclose to a subject or source in order to obtain legal consent to conduct an interview and publish its contents is the reporter’s name and that of their employer. This meagre consent requirement is not only legal but ethical according to the established norms of journalism practice which uphold a prima facie duty to the public interest. As the American journalism scholars Philip Seib and Kathy Fitzpatrick argue, “To whom does a journalist owe his or her principal loyalty – source or public? Remove sympathy and the answer is easy: the public.” That’s a fair ethical standard when dealing with a media-seasoned public figure who understands what’s at stake before she opens her mouth, or presses send on an email or text. But does it need to be applied with more care and consideration when dealing with inexperienced, particularly vulnerable or marginalized (i.e. those without power or protection) members of society?

This question is being posed for one simple reason: sharing information with a reporter is not a risk free act. There is a range of potential consequences for subjects and sources. Not all of them are bad. Stories of personal struggle can lead to offers of financial aid and other kinds of help, support and attention.  But negative things can happen too after these stories are published.

Subjects can end up feeling mild “source remorse” on seeing their words and life made public, or a stronger sense of public humiliation. More seriously, they could, as in the hypothetical scenario, lose their job, or get cut off from their insurance, experience strain on personal relationships and/or mental health problems.

In the online universe, the source may be subjected to ridicule or hostility in the comments that follow an online story or within social media.

Journalists with a few years of practice under their belt are indeed aware of the potential pitfalls associated with publicizing private information.  Not every possible consequence can be anticipated or foreseen, but journalists often know more about these risks than do inexperienced subjects and sources. Yet we usually refrain from sharing this information. Yes, all of us – including subjects and sources – live in an age of social media, but most of us haven’t experienced firsthand a Facebook or Twitter flame-out.

Below is a discussion of this issue that offers some significant difference in perspective.

1. Does current media law on consent offer enough protection to subjects and sources?

Response from English, Enkin and Sher

We believe journalists must take every step to respect our sources and our interview subjects, but we see legal minefields here in any requirement that goes beyond identifying ourselves as journalists.

We believe this requirement is sufficient in that subjects are clearly informed that they are talking to a journalist. ‍It presumes that subjects have free will in deciding whether to open themselves to a journalist’s request for information. When they are adults, interview subjects and sources can make their own decisions once informed of what we are doing.

Response from Levine

I agree with English, Enkin and Sher that the law is the wrong place to address the issue of subject consent in journalism. But I strongly reject the claim that current legal requirements adequately deal with the issue.  Consenting to an interview with little information beyond the name of the reporter and their employer should not be characterized as making an informed decision, or as an exercise of free will.

Just because sources know they are talking to a reporter doesn’t mean they understand that what they say could be published. Journalists know this is the way the game is played, but this isn’t necessarily the case for the average citizen.

How many Canadians even know what the term “on the record” means?

My Western journalism colleague, Paul Benedetti, worked for many years as a reporter with the Hamilton Spectator. He recalls that there were many times when reporting on a story, he’d call someone up, identify himself as a reporter with the Spec and start asking questions which were gladly answered. But at some point during the interview it would become apparent that the subject/source didn’t understand that what they were saying could end up in the paper. They just thought they were having a chat with a nice person. This led Benedetti to alter his consent transactions to ensure the subjects/sources knew they could be quoted.

Response from English, Enkin and Sher

We agree with Levine – reporters should make it very clear that they are talking to someone for publication in a paper or online, and what the interviewee is saying may be used. But if you are working in audio and/or video, it is pretty clear that an interview is being recorded.

Regardless of the medium, providing the broad context of the piece you are working on and how this person fits into the story is good practice. It is also good practice to ensure that people understand that what they say will not subsequently be unpublished if they come to have second thoughts about what they reveal to a reporter.

We commend the approach of Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg. In his 2013 book, You were Never in ChicagoSteinberg describes “The Speech” – “a little preliminary warning I deliver to people who might not be fully cognizant, who might not be factoring in all the consequences of publicity.”

Here is Steinberg’s “speech”: “You understand I write for a newspaper. That I’m talking to you because I’m going to put what you say into an article, which will appear in the newspaper, which people will then read.”

Response from Levine

I’m pleased that the gap between us is narrowing on this question. I think Steinberg’s speech moves the consent conversation in the right direction, but it doesn’t quite go far enough.

Before I get to “the speech,” though, I have to challenge your argument about audio and video consent. More and more these interviews are recorded on mobile, multi-use devices. How would the inexperienced subject know that the smartphone sitting on a stand next to the reporter is recording the conversation and that the reporter plans to use the material in a story … that is, unless they were told so by the reporter?

Now back to Steinberg’s interview speech, free will and informed consent.

Even if subjects understand that they are being interviewed for publication (in any form), this doesn’t mean, despite what Steinberg claims, that they are then “fully cognizant” of “all the consequences of publicity.” His speech merely describes the nature of the proposed transaction – an interview for public consumption – but says nothing about   the potential impact on the subject’s life when the content of the interview becomes public, that is, it says nothing about consequences. Making a decision about giving an interview without being provided information about potential consequences cannot be characterized as anything other than acting blindly. That’s why in health care, consent without discussion of potential consequences is considered invalid, as failing to meet the standards of informed consent.

2. How big a risk is there for bad things to happen to people because they are interviewed by journalists?

Response from English, Enkin and Sher

In each of our more than three decades of experience, we have found the most serious consequences for sources to be a rare occurrence. While “source remorse” is indeed something most journalists are familiar with, serious life and death implications are not the norm, even for investigative journalists breaking stories of serious public interest.

Response from Levine

The truth is we don’t really know how often and to what degree bad things happen to journalism subjects because of participation in media stories. It is not standard practice to have ongoing contact with sources and subjects; the relationship usually ends once a story is published. I agree that the chances of a subject committing suicide over an encounter with a journalist are low, but there is research out there that indicates that disclosure of personal information by the media has been a factor in some suicides.* From this and other research and from conversations with journalists, media ombudspeople and public editors, it is clear that bad things do happen to journalism subjects and some of the consequences, like job loss or insurance loss, are both unanticipated and pretty significant.

Response from English, Enkin and Sher

While it’s fair to say journalists do have little interaction with sources following publication of their stories, and likely can’t know the full extent of consequences, we believe if something of consequence happened soon after publication, the reporter and/or news organization would likely know. Sources do contact reporters or public editors/ombudsmen if there is an issue of concern.

And we would further ask – how can we be certain of the cause and effect between publication of the article and the source’s complaint or concern?

3. When it comes to vulnerable people, should journalists expand their role beyond public information provider to be advocate or caretaker?

Response from Levine

Journalists shouldn’t transform themselves into social workers, risk experts or advocates for anyone. Our duty is to inform people, not to take care of them. Or to make decisions for them. But this duty to inform must extend to our subjects. They too are members of the public in need of information – in this case information from us about the possible impact of communicating with a journalist.

Response from English, Enkin and Sher

Journalists are not social workers. Our overriding duty is to the public and the public interest. It is of course important to think about the impact of our work on our sources but each situation will determine a unique answer. There cannot be a blanket solution.

4. How then do we balance the principle of serving the public with the idea of minimizing the harm we impose particularly on vulnerable and marginalized subjects?

Response from Levine

Let’s be clear: However murky and convenient is this notion of public interest or public good, it is still a vital principle, and not one that should be undermined. Yet, as Harvard philosopher Sissela Bok argues, the public’s right to know, or serving the public interest, is often used as code “… to create a self-evident legitimacy which is not borne out by rigorous argument.” Many journalism stories that use inexperienced and/or vulnerable subjects could still be told – the necessary information could still get out to the public – by using experts and advocates instead.

The real tension here, then, is not so much between duty to the public interest and duty to the subject, but between the vulnerable subject and good old storytelling. An expert or advocate, no matter how well-versed in an issue, generally does not provide the same opportunities for compelling content – get out your hanky, audience glued to their sets or to their newspapers variety – as do first-person narratives.

There is an absence of evidence that better informing subjects and sources will their reduce participation rates in media stories. Subjects might willingly expose themselves to a range of harms for a variety of complex reasons: to educate the public, to put pressure on a government about a particular policy, to get attention, to feel valued and so on.

Informed consent was imposed a few decades ago, despite much bitter resistance, on the work of anthropologists and sociologists. Follow-up research has demonstrated, though, that using informed consent protocols to recruit subjects did not lead to a decline in participation rates.

Response from English, Enkin and Sher

There are practical problems about how far journalists should go in informing sources of possible risks of talking to them. Where would journalists draw the line? What is the threshold for explaining consequences: that any interview might result in someone flaming someone in the comments section, or attract nasty tweets? What constitutes harm, and how can a journalist be responsible for determining that?

It would be disingenuous to suggest all journalists display sensitivity to their sources. Certainly, a great range of beliefs and behaviours toward sources exists among journalists and the news organizations they work within. Many journalists have been trained to believe that whatever any source says is fair game for publication or broadcast and give little thought to any consequences for sources.

In her 1990 book, The Journalist and the Murderer, writer Janet Malcolm provoked much anger and sparked widespread discussion among journalists for characterizing the journalist/source relationship as one of journalistic deception.

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows what he does is morally indefensible,” she wrote. “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

Referring to Malcolm’s thesis in his 1996 book, News Values, then Chicago Tribune publisher Jack Fuller argued that expectations are key to the ethics of the journalist/source relationship. “Both individuals go into the relationship with eyes open. Each has reason to respect and suspect the other. And each has reason to understand the nature of the game.”

Fuller made an important ethical distinction for journalists in how they deal with vulnerable people, not used to the media. “It is a different matter when the reporter deals with somebody who is unsophisticated, immature or otherwise vulnerable, or who does not understand the game,” he wrote.

And similarly Robert J. Haiman in his 1999 report, “Best Practices for Newspaper Journalists” for the Freedom Forum Free Press/Fair Press Project, stated that “as a best practice, the news staff should consider whether it is fair to behave differently when questioning ordinary citizens unaccustomed to being interviewed than with people experienced and knowledgeable about the press.”

Empathy and sensitivity to sources has long been a journalistic value. Indeed we see this issue as central to journalistic fairness. And certainly all journalists have a duty to be fair. But determining how to be fair in gathering and presenting the news – to sources and to the public – remains a matter of journalistic judgment for individual journalists and their news organizations with the full understanding that any such judgments have an impact on the credibility of journalists and their organizations.

Response from Levine

Journalists and their editors engage in calculations almost daily on the issue of subject harm. Decisions are constantly made in newsrooms about whether or not to publish information that may be upsetting or embarrassing to a source or subject, or potentially hurt them in some other way (risk of arrest, for example). And the measure is usually whether or not this information is in the public interest.

As my colleagues acknowledge, it is the journalists and their organizations that are defining, on a story by story basis, just what is this public interest that is said to be at stake. Given that we live in a complex society with many publics and many competing interests, how is it that journalists and their editors are left to determine among themselves what is, and what is not, in the public interest, and whether or not the information they would like to publish justifies imposing harm on subjects and sources? What particular skills and societal authority allow journalists to make these decisions competently and in a manner that reflects an attempt to harmonize many competing needs and values?

5. OK, we can’t solve this. What do you propose we do?

Response from English, Enkin and Sher

This is an important discussion for journalists and critical to questions of journalism’s credibility. We hope it leads to more individual and institutional thought and serious questioning about the values and norms regarding journalists and their sources, especially in regard to vulnerable subjects and those who have little experience with the media. At a minimum, news organizations should have a working understanding or definition of who “vulnerable” subjects are, and whether there are steps that should be considered before publicly identifying him or her and all of the information revealed to the journalist.

We recommend that news organizations take the time to deliberate on these questions and develop some guidelines and training for their news staff. As part of ethics courses in journalism school, it would be worthwhile to focus on this issue and the value of empathy in the relationships between journalists and vulnerable sources.

While we would resist any attempt to strengthen consent protocols in any formal manner implied by a “duty to inform,” we believe some questions are worth exploring by journalists and their news organizations.

  • Do we need to be more explicit to ensure sources understand they are on the record, i.e. what they say can be used?
  • Is there a way that we can strengthen consent guidelines without choking journalism practice?
  • Can we identify vulnerable sources who may merit different treatment? What are the criteria?

Response from Levine

I think these are excellent suggestions and questions, and despite the protestations of my colleagues, I do in fact believe, if seriously taken up by media organizations, they will lead to strengthened consent protocols. I’m not suggesting any of this will be simple or easy. The rapid pace of the news cycle, and the increased time pressures on reporters created by polypublishing, will often foreclose on opportunities for genuine dialogue with potential subjects and sources about potential consequences.

But if we limited our discussion of consequences to inexperienced subjects who journalists can reasonably perceive as at risk of significant harm, limited the process to verbal consent (journalists should be recording their interviews), and limited the time frame for decision-making, we just might be able to move our consent transactions in a more ethically supportable direction.

The truth is that journalists do engage in discussions about consequences with potential subjects and sources all the time, but we tend to keep those conversations focused on the potentially positive things that might happen for subjects if they participate in our media story.  Perhaps the time has come to include acknowledgment, in the limited circumstances outlined above, of not only the potential benefits of sharing their information, but also some of the potential risks.

Over two decades ago, the Danish Press Council interpreted the language of that country’s Media Liability Act to include the following directive: “Other people’s confidence must not be abused. Special regard should be paid to persons who cannot be expected to realize the effects of their statements. Other people’s feelings, ignorance or failing self-control should not be abused.”

According to follow-up research, since introducing this language there has been no deleterious restriction of press freedoms. If anything, public confidence in journalists acting ethically has increased.

6. Final thoughts?

Response from Levine

John Stuart Mill described the public in a democracy is an aggregate of individuals, each possessing certain inalienable rights, such as freedom from coercion, tyranny and censorship. Key to the enjoyment of these basic freedoms was the right to be informed. Mill entrusted this key function of liberal democracy to journalism, which he felt should strive to provide all individuals with a full range of information, opinion and debate on issues vital to their well-being.

Today’s journalists and their employers continue to echo Mill; the mission statements and guidelines from many media outlets describe their role as society’s watchdogs, informing and educating the public. But if enabling public access to information is a core claim of journalism, how do we justify potentially undermining it when it comes to our relationships with inexperienced subjects and sources?

An obligation to inform inexperienced subjects about possible consequences should not be viewed as in opposition to the public interest, or more specifically to truth, accuracy and fairness; instead, it should be seen as operating in service of these same goals. Failing to disclose to a potential subject possible consequences of which a journalist is aware is failing to uphold the truth, to uphold accuracy, to uphold fairness and to uphold the public good. It is logically and ethically inconsistent (not to mention hypocritical) to withhold information, foreclose choice, undermine autonomy, etc. of subjects in the name of serving the public interest.

Finally, participating in a conversation about consequences not only protects subjects, it also protects journalists from unintentionally deceiving their subjects; holding back important information is deception.

Response from English, Enkin and Sher

As Fuller tells us in News Values: “The crucial thing for journalists is to recognize that their trade does not exempt them from the basic moral imperatives that guide all other human relationships …

“Pursuit of truth is not a licence to be a jerk.”

When dealing with traumatized or vulnerable people, it calls for a greater sensitivity and some reflection on whether the consent is truly informed and thought out. Like many journalistic endeavours, there are competing values. It is important to think it through in each case.

For example, Jean Rafferty’s excellent essay in Researchers and Their ‘Subjects’:  Ethics, Power, Knowledge and Consent. Or the more recent example of the suicide of transgendered golf club and con artist inventor who lied about who was outed a Grantland article.

Read More

Guidelines for personal activity online

Report of the Ethics Advisory Committee of The Canadian Association of Journalists

February 4, 2011


The Ethics Committee of the CAJ asked its Social Media Panel to propose guidelines for personal activity online. To study this issue, the panel looked at social media policies at major news organizations, the opinions of leading commentators and working reporters.


If you’re a reporter over 35, an employer likely told you not to post campaign signs on your lawn, attend public rallies or sport bumper stickers. The advice was meant to portray you — and your employer — as independent and without bias.

Reporters are expected to set aside their biases in order to report fairly and impartially. But the perception of impartiality can be difficult to maintain as we use more social media in our personal and professional lives. Bumper stickers and rallies now take the form of Foursquare participation badges and Facebook allegiances. The Internet captures our participation in groups, advocacy of causes and connections to people.

Consider the following scenarios:

  • A city hall reporter covering budget deliberations uses a personal Facebook account to “like” a page calling for a new city-funded playground
  • A reporter using a personal Twitter account follows only two of three candidates running in her riding
  • A business reporter has become the Foursquare “mayor” of a neighbourhood Starbucks (as a result of frequent virtual “check-ins”)

There is considerable debate as to the extent — or existence — of an ethical issue for the reporter in these situations.

Can she report with impartiality? Most would agree she can. Reporters, as citizens, have personal opinions, political leanings and family interests. However, like judges or doctors, they should put those aside and pursue evidence-based conclusions.

The greater issue is whether they are seen by the public to be impartial. Some social media advocates say the new standard for credibility online is a record of transparency in declaring one’s personal interests — not a “veil” of impartiality. Many traditional news organizations argue that a perception of complete independence is crucial to one’s journalistic reputation.

Experts acknowledge that while users can maintain separate profiles online, the public sees only one. The issue, then, is how, or if, reporters should reconcile their personal Internet use with their professional use — and what guidelines they can follow.


Social media can be a powerful asset to reporters in their newsgathering. They can speed the process and broaden a reporter’s network of sources.

In April 2007, Washington Post reporter Meg Smith used her personal Facebook account to join Facebook communities that connected her with Virginia Tech students immediately following the campus shootings. The connections she made using social media gave her access to sources close to the victims that no other news organization had.

Using social media effectively often involves creating publicly visible connections. The nature and strength of these connections — people you “friend” or follow, for example — can mean different things to different people. Reuters, for example, states in its guidelines: “A determined critic can soon build up a picture of your preferences by analysing your links, those that you follow, your 'friends', blogroll and endless other indicators.”

Steven Mendoza cited the dilemma faced by Sacramento Bee columnist Stuart Leavenworth in the American Journalism Review. A “friend request” from California's secretary of state caused him to ask whether the public could interpret such a relationship as being stronger than it was.

He opted to ignore the request, stating, “I really wanted to keep a little bit of distance from public officials and other sources I deal with on a regular basis.”

However, New York Times standards editor Craig Whitney stated the Times worries little about these perceptions. “We believe that being a friend on Facebook … is essentially meaningless, and everybody knows that,” he stated. “So it's hard to imagine any real conflict of interest that could arise from your being a friend of somebody on Facebook and writing about that person."

The growth of social media in recent years has prompted news organizations to address the issue of their employees expressing personal preferences online. The L.A. Times issued social media guidelines in November 2009 that stated: “Just as political bumper stickers and lawn signs are to be avoided in the offline world, so too are partisan expressions online.”

Social media advocates, however, were quick to criticize policies they deemed too conservative and contrary to the nature of social media. Some argued many of these guidelines framed social media as a source of harm, failing to acknowledge their value and potential. They said reporters can reap immense rewards from participating in social media and doing so is difficult without being partisan.

“The notion that journalists don’t have personal lives or opinions, that they shouldn’t reveal political preferences or engage in civic causes regardless of their beat, that they should be shielded from direct interaction with the public for fear of disclosing a compromising point of view — this is sheer lunacy,” argued journalist and social media consultant J.D. Lasica in response to some news organizations’ policies.

Criticism was particularly strong in reaction to the Wall Street Journal’s social media guidelines issued in May 2009 (initially posted by Editor and Publisher and later unavailable, but reproduced here): The WSJ’s recommendation that “Business and pleasure should not be mixed on services like Twitter” became a focal point for criticism.

“How can you not mix business and pleasure on Twitter?” argued journalist and social media advocate Gina Chen. “It’s a conversation. People follow you because they like you or they’re interested in your topic area. If you want to connect with people on Twitter you need to come across as a human being, who jokes around, who tweets a favorite song, who complains about the weather. Nobody wants to follow a robot. And that’s not connecting; that’s broadcasting.”

Journalist and community engagement advocate Steve Buttry agreed, arguing, “Most of the Twitter world mixes business with pleasure. Building walls means you won’t understand how Twitter works.”

Mathew Ingram, the communities editor at the Globe and Mail at the time, stated: “The idea that you can maintain a strict division between the personal and professional just doesn’t jibe with the way social networks (or human beings) operate. Naturally, a newspaper like the Journal doesn’t want its reporters discussing every detail of their personal lives on Twitter, and no one would argue with that. A little taste of the personal can have a tremendous impact, however, and can build loyalty with readers. Media outlets like the Journal ignore that at their peril.”

Mandy Jenkins, a social media editor at Washington’s, has similar thoughts: “Friending, liking and following may sound like chummy words, but these are things you need to do to get info from sources on social media. If you think it might make you look biased, put a notation on your page/bio that says why you do it.”

News organizations issuing social media guidelines have come to the near-unanimous conclusion that the public will connect a reporter’s different online identities, no matter how hard that person might try to keep them separate.

NPR’s guidelines, for example, state: “Regardless of how careful you are in trying to keep them separate, in your online activity, your professional life and your personal life overlap.”

Consequently, their guidelines focus on helping the reporter create an online profile that doesn't hinder their work as a professional reporter.


All of the social media guidelines acknowledge the basic principle of guarding against conduct that could harm the reputation of the news organization. They are, at their core, corporate guidelines for employees that aim to protect the institution’s credibility. But they also provide solid guidance to reporters generally.

Reuters’ guidelines summarize the issue acknowledged by most: “Whether we think it is fair or not, other media will use your social media output as [our] comment on topical stories.” They state further that “you should do nothing that would damage our reputation for impartiality and independence.”

Beyond these generally agreed-upon statements, news organizations differ in how they attempt to influence reporters’ personal activity online.

If the Wall Street Journal was at one end of the spectrum, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the BBC are at the other end. The former’s entire social media guidelines consist of only four points; two of which apply to personal activity online:

  • Do not mix the professional and the personal in ways likely to bring the ABC into disrepute.
  • Do not imply ABC endorsement of your personal views.

Similarly, the BBC asks only that personal posts “not bring the BBC into disrepute,” while instructing that “editorial staff should not indicate their political allegiance” in social media.

The news organizations that provide detailed guidelines address personal activity online in two subject areas:

1. Commenting

Most news organizations caution against creating a perception the reporter is advocating for causes or taking sides on other polarizing issues. Many acknowledge that reporters will have private lives and caution them only against making statements that appear to endorse issues — especially ones they cover.

The New York Times advised in a 2009 draft of its Policy on Facebook and Other Social Networking Sites: “Be careful not to write anything on a blog or a personal Web page that you could not write in The Times -- don't editorialize, for instance, if you work for the News Department. ...That includes things you recommend on TimesPeople or articles you post to Facebook and Digg.”

In contrast, the U.K. Guardian invites its staff to “participate in conversations about our content, and take responsibility for the conversations you start.” Further, it asks that they: “Declare personal interest when applicable. Be transparent about your affiliations, perspectives or previous coverage.”

Reuters advises employees to “think carefully about what personal content would be appropriate,” stating: “Micro-blogging and use of social media tend to blur the distinction between professional and personal lives: when using Twitter or social media in a professional capacity you should aim to be personable but not to include irrelevant material about your personal life.”

NPR’s guidelines state simply: “You must not advocate for political or other polarizing issues online.”

2. Friending or Following others, Joining Groups Or Accepting ‘Badges’

Many news organizations address the issue of reporters creating connections in social media that can lead readers to perceive bias. This can take the form of following people on Twitter or friending them on Facebook. It can also take the form of joining groups on Facebook or accepting tokens or “badges” for participation.

NPR states: “[Our guidelines warning against advocating political causes] extends to joining online groups or using social media in any form (including your Facebook page or a personal blog) to express personal views on a political or other controversial issue that you could not write for the air or post on”

A number of news organizations suggest that reporters need to balance the groups they join to minimize a perception of bias. NPR for example, states further that “if you ‘friend’ or join a group representing one side of an issue, do so for a group representing the competing viewpoint, when reasonable to do so.” The L.A. Times has a similar statement.

The Roanoke (Virginia) Times agrees, but further advocates an all-or-nothing approach. Concerning groups, it advises: “Either avoid them entirely, or sign up for lots of groups.” Concerning friends, it states: “Accept no sources or people you cover as friends, or welcome them all.”

Indeed, many guidelines stress the need for transparency. Both Reuters and NPR ask their employees always to declare their relationship to their employer and the personal nature of their opinions.

The New York Times advises reporters on Facebook to “leave blank the section that asks about your political views.” Similarly, the Radio Television Digital News Association advises thinking hard about “Facebook information that describes your relationship status, age, sexual preference and political or religious views,” saying “these descriptors can hold loaded meanings and affect viewer perception.”


The panel believes the Internet, by its nature, encourages personal interaction. The panel sees social relationships online as key to gathering news and building engagement. As a result, it advises reporters, generally, to embrace this aspect of the medium.

Being social means showing one’s personality. The panel recommends reporters build a social media profile that is both personable and professional. It recommends that they create connections by following or friending — but remain mindful of the perceptions these social relationships can create.

The panel believes that expressing opinions about certain matters and making light-hearted jokes can humanize one’s profile in social media and build engagement. But the standard of acceptable partisanship shown in social media can depend on many factors.

Columnists, for example, might not hold themselves to the standard of independence and impartiality that a daily reporter might. Municipal government reporters might ordinarily refrain from expressing strong opinions on issues they cover.

The panel concludes that reporters using social media should at all times aim for transparency in their activities online.

The panel recommends reporters use the following guidelines:

  • Stay as impartial as possible on public issues.
  • Be prepared to acknowledge publicly anything you post online — even if you think it’s private. It probably isn’t.
  • Be transparent about your identity and your intent. Reporters should not normally conduct their work under a social media account that skirts journalistic obligations to transparency.
  • Monitor the names in your social media community frequently. Mind the image that list conveys with the friends you accept, the people you choose to follow, the groups you join and the tokens you receive. Consider joining a wide variety of groups and accepting a range of followers — instead of choosing only a few.
  • Take care in crafting biographical details in the personal profile section of social media services. For example, take special caution in filling out the “Political Views” template in Facebook.
  • State explicitly on your blog or social media site that the opinions are your own.

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Journalists seeking public office: What are the ethical issues?

Panel report by Ken Regan (chair), Scott White, and Ivor Shapiro
With research provided by Christine Dobby

Approved by the Full Committee on October 27, 2010

If a practising journalist seeks public office, what effect does, can or should that choice have on his or her ability to continue or return to his or her work? This practical issue raises other, perhaps more philosophical, but no less relevant questions.

The first is:

  • Do journalists have a democratic right to participate in the public / political process, including running for office?

There have been numerous examples of journalists seeking public office. Some relatively notable ones include:

  • Ralph Klein – as a Senior Civic Affairs reporter for CFCN Television and Radio in Calgary, Klein was able to use his position to significantly raise his public profile and reputation. After 11 years Klein left his reporter position to run for mayor, and won.
  • Peter Kent – the Global Television VP for news first ran for the federal Conservatives as a candidate and lost. He returned to Global – still in a senior editorial capacity. He ran in a different riding and won the seat

Fundamentally a journalist has and should have the same democratic right as any citizen to seek public office or express personal beliefs, including political ones. Journalists are not expected or required to take some vow of political chastity when they take up the profession.

The real question becomes: if and when they do exercise their fundamental political rights, do journalists have special responsibilities as journalists to their employers, peers, or the public? The short answer seems to be: “yes.”

Much of what a journalist does is report on, chronicle or comment upon the activities and behaviours of others, including on occasion, the political activities and integrity of individuals, governments or organizations. The journalist’s works are by definition public and therefore can directly or indirectly influence other people and society’s perception of his/her subject.

If a journalist engages in outside political activity or espouses a particular political viewpoint, this activity could create a public perception of bias, or favouritism that would reflect on the journalist's work as well as on the media organization for which he or she may work. As a result, many media organizations have policies to govern a journalist’s engagement in outside political activity.

For example, “The New York Times Company Policy on Ethics in Journalism” recognizes employees’ rights to engage in civic and political processes (such as voting), but states:

69. The good name of our company and of our business unit or publication does not belong to any of us. No one has a right to exploit it for private purposes. Accordingly, the company applies limitations to other kinds of political engagement: 89. Journalists do not take part in politics. While staff members are entitled to vote and to register in party primaries, they must do nothing that might raise questions about their professional neutrality or that of our news operations. In particular, they may not campaign for, demonstrate for, or endorse candidates, ballot causes or efforts to enact legislation. They may not wear campaign buttons or themselves display any other insignia of partisan politics. 90. Staff members may not themselves give money to any political candidate or election cause or raise money for one. Given the ease of Internet access to public records of campaign contributions, any political giving by a staff member would risk feeding a false impression that we are taking sides. 91. No staff member may seek public office anywhere. Seeking or serving in public office violates the professional detachment expected of a journalist. Active participation by one of our staff can sow a suspicion of favoritism in political coverage. 92. Staff members may not march or rally in support of public causes or movements or sign advertisements or petitions taking a position on public issues. They may not lend their names to campaigns, benefit dinners or similar events if doing so might reasonably raise doubts about their ability or their newsroom's ability to remain neutral in covering the news. Neighbors and other outsiders commonly see us as representatives of our institution. [For additional info, see:]

In Canada, The Canadian Press policies state:

Outside work must not reflect negatively on the company’s reputation, nor the reputation of the employee involved. Work that compromises or is perceived to compromise the objectivity of our employees will not be permitted. For example, it is not permissible to work for politicians or take writing, broadcasting or photographic assignments with commercial organizations or lobby groups. Neither is it permissible to sell expertise on how to deal with the media.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation policy reads:

The CBC/Radio-Canada must not only be impartial, it must also project an image of impartiality…. Employees assigned to information programming areas are limited in engaging in political activity, as they have the potential to influence or appear to influence politically related programming.

The following is CBC's Corporate By-Law No. 14(3)3 under the heading "Officers And Employees":

(3)(a) No employee who is employed by the Corporation on a full-time basis as a producer, a supervisor of news or information programming, an editor, a journalist, a reporter, an on-air personality, or who is a designated management employee or primarily responsible to represent the Corporation in its contact with the public, may, subject to subparagraph 14(3)(b) or (c), take a position publicly in a referendum or plebiscite, actively support a political party or candidate, stand for nomination as a candidate and/or be a candidate for election to the House of Commons, a provincial legislature, the Yukon legislative assembly, the legislative assembly of the Northwest Territories, or a municipal or civic office… [For details, see: … or … ]

And at National Public Radio, the policy says:

NPR journalists may not run for office, endorse candidates or otherwise engage in politics. Since contributions to candidates are part of the public record, NPR journalists may not contribute to political campaigns, as doing so would call into question a journalist's impartiality in coverage. In virtually all media organizations that have established policies governing political activity, there is an expressed concern about how such activities by journalists could impugn or call into question the impartiality of the journalist and/or the media organization for which they work.

This raises the question:

  • Do news organizations have a right to protect their brand, even to the extent of prohibiting the exercise of individual employee rights?

A media company’s brand, like that of any corporation or business, has real value. It is the company’s primary identifier and public representation. Any action or activity that undermines the integrity of the brand can have an affect on the company’s standing within the broader community and by extension, the company’s value and fortunes. This in turn can affect the fortunes of those working for the company, those investing in the company, and so on.

The supposition contained within various media policies and guidelines is that if a journalist does seek public office, or demonstrates an opinion or personal support for a political issue, candidate, party, policy or philosophy, that it impairs their ability to be impartial, or at least taints the public’s perception of their independence.

In a 1984 exploration of political activity by journalists, from both an ethical and legal standpoint, Andrew MacFarlane and Robert Martin argued that fundamental democratic rights should ultimately trump an employer’s right to curtail such rights. They wrote:

The other justification advanced is the one to which we take special exception. Journalists must not engage in political activity because this would tend to compromise their appearance of objectivity. The standard laid down by the Louisville, Kentucky Courier Journal and Times makes the point: "We must not give any person reason to suspect that our handling of a story, editorial or picture is related in any way to political activity by a member of the staff (Hulteng, 1981, 73)." A basic right of the citizen is denied the journalist in order that appearances may be maintained.

MacFarlane and Martin went on to conclude:

The politically active journalist can create problems for an employer. The task of deciding when political involvement affects work will be a difficult one. This fact provides neither ethical nor practical justification for the denial of rights which is inherent in the a priori prohibition of political activity.

They also however made a case for remedying the issue:

In arguing against the a priori curtailment of journalist employee's right to exercise their citizenship obligations as they perceive them, we are appealing not only for ethical reasonableness, but for the application of common sense. The argument, from a management perspective, is: ‘What are we going to do if all our editorial people start running for office and addressing political rallies?’ The first answer to the question is, of course, that all of them will not, no more than will all of any other category of employees be politically active. Secondly, however, where there is no prohibition against political activity, some journalists will undoubtedly become involved. This, in turn, will require editors and newsroom executives t o decide whether there is a genuine threat to a particular reporter's effectiveness or whether the reporter's copy continues to achieve an acceptable standard. But, and this is crucial t o our argument, the standard applied should be one of fairness, not objectivity. To concentrate on the reporter's work, rather than political allegiance, will undoubtedly require more subtle decisions on assignments, and on journalists' writing, by editors and executives. Reporting has to be seen to be fair, not in order to accede to a spurious notion that journalists be objective, but because the journalism they produce must be of the highest quality. (“Political Activity and the Journalist: A Paradox,” Canadian Journal of Communication, 1984 10:2, 1-35.)

MacFarlane and Martin suggest the issue is not whether some “ideal” of objectivity is jeopardized by a journalist seeking public office, thus potentially damaging their employer’s reputation or standing, but rather a more pragmatic one of, are there means to allow journalists to exercise their democratic right to seek public office, without having to leave their employment or interrupt their career? The onus, they seem to say, is on the employer – and to some extent the journalist—to work it out in a manner that prevents problems.

On the other hand, and despite what MacFarlane and Martin suggest vis-à-vis managing political activity by journalists as opposed to prohibiting it, an expose published by MSNBC in 2007 illustrates the vulnerabilities inherent in political activities by journalists and how it can bring unwelcome or disquieting notoriety to the journalist and his/her organization, both within the public and the professional realm. (See: "Journalists dole out cash to politicians (quietly) /" (updated) June 25, 2007,

Here are some excerpts:

"Our writers are citizens, and they're free to do what they want to do," said New Yorker editor David Remnick, who has 10 political donors at his magazine. "If what they write is fair, and they respond to editing and counter-arguments with an open mind, that to me is the way we work." The openness didn't extend, however, to telling the public about the donations. Apparently none of the journalists disclosed the donations to readers, viewers or listeners. Few told their bosses, either. … Several of the donating journalists said they had no regrets, whatever the ethical concerns.

A few journalists let their enthusiasm extend beyond the checkbook. A Fox TV reporter in Omaha, Calvert Collins, posted a photo on with her cozying up to a Democratic candidate for Congress. She urged her friends, "Vote for him Tuesday, Nov. 7!" She also gave him $500. She said she was just trying to build rapport with the candidates. (And what builds rapport more effectively than $500 and a strapless gown?)”

Clearly, political activities by working journalists inherently have the potential to raise questions about conflict of interest, questions about political or other independence and influence, and questions about impartiality. When such questions arise about individual journalists, they could by extension raise questions about the journalist’s employer, potentially affecting the integrity of the company brand. Therefore, the panel concludes that a media organization has a right to protect the integrity of its brand by imposing limits on certain activities, including political activities, of its employees. When a journalist signs on with an employer, they accept an obligation to know, understand and adhere to that organization’s policies governing political activity.

However, to support the right of an organization to establish policies in this area is not altogether to surrender the freedom of a journalist to express political views and conduct an active political life. Many journalists do not work for news organizations, and those who do so retain the right to question the reasonableness of their employers' policies. A news organization's interests are not identical to those of individual employees, and blanket prohibitions and guidelines may not do a good job of addressing nuanced questions, such as:

Should distinctions be drawn between running for a major office, running for minor office, and other expressions of political views (i.e., signing a petition)?


Should distinctions be drawn between journalists who report "political" news and/or events, running for office, and others?

There would seem to be a substantial difference in implications between the case of Global-TV executive Peter Kent seeking federal office twice, on one hand, and that of Sean McCormick, anchor for Rogers Sportsnet, who is seeking a municipal seat in Toronto. ("Rogers Sportsnet anchor running for Toronto council," The Globe and Mail, May 6, 2010.) But that difference is not necessarily definitive on the ethical question. There is some distance between McCormick's "beat" and the office he seeks, but a conflict isn't unimaginable, given how closely tied professional sports and civic government can be at times.

Does the ethical question or its relevance increase as the distance between the journalist’s beat and the public office narrows, or is the issue’s relevancy a constant? These are reasonable questions, as is the question of whether running in a political campaign is substantively different from, for example, signing a petition.

This panel was unable to identify clear criteria for resolving these questions of degree. Running for major political office would seem to constitute an obvious and intuitive conflict of interest either for a reporter who covers politics or for an editor, producer or executive who influences coverage decisions. Similar conflicts might not arise if a columnist with well-known opinions, or an arts critic, runs for school trustee or posts a lawn sign.

The panel concludes that journalists should not feel subject to a blanket profession-wide prohibition on political activity, but that journalists and their employers if any, should seek a nuanced understanding of the actual and perceived conflicts of interest that might arise in the particular situation, and a reasonable approach to managing these conflicts.

To what extent is there a professional consensus on this matter?

It appears, based on even a cursory survey that many of the world’s major and smaller media outlets have some measure of policies relating to outside political activity by their journalists. In addition to those cited already above, the Los Angeles Times, The British Broadcasting Corporation, the Guardian Newspaper, Christian Science Monitor and many, many others have policies governing the issue. Many reflect a common theme - the importance of restricting individual political activity in order to maintain journalistic and organizational integrity, and thus preclude any real or perceived conflicts which might cause a diminishing of reputation or brand of the media organization involved.

While these media organizations' policies are mostly reasonable, in principle, they do not speak the last word on journalists' own ethical choices. More to the point might be the fact that there is no record of these policies being opposed either by employees or by other journalists as individuals or groups. On the contrary, the CAJ's ethics guidelines unambiguously support a line being drawn between journalists' professional identity and their political views:

… There is a tradition in Canada of media organizations that support and advocate particular ideologies and causes. These ideologies and causes should be transparent to the readers, listeners or viewers. Journalists for these organizations sometimes choose to be advocates or are hired to be advocates and this too, should be transparent. In our role as fair and impartial journalists, we must be free to comment on the activities of any publicly elected body or special interest organization. It is not possible to do this without an apparent conflict of interest if we are active members of a group we are covering. We lose our credibility as fair observers if we write opinion pieces about subjects that we also cover as reporters. We will not hold elected political office, work as officials on political campaigns, or write speeches for any political party or official. Editorial boards and columnists or commentators endorse political candidates or political causes. Reporters do not. We will not make financial contributions to a political campaign if there is a chance we will be covering the campaign. We will not hold office in community organizations about which we may report or make editorial judgments. This includes fund-raising or public relations work and active participation in community organizations and pressure groups that take positions on public issues.

The panel is not certain that so unambiguous a line is universally justified, but we note that the professional consensus on the matter appears to be quite strong. Journalists, therefore, are advised to proceed with caution when considering political involvement.

If a journalist decides to seek public office, or otherwise engage in political activity, what does he/she need to consider?

The panel suggests that journalists who might wish to engage in any political activity do the following:

  1. Consider carefully the possibility that, in the near or distant future, the activity might hinder their actual or perceived ability to conduct independent reporting.
  2. Familiarize themselves with and understand any company policies governing such activity and be prepared to adhere to such policies.
  3. Inform their employers, if any, of their intentions.
  4. Publicly declare any real or potential conflicts.
  5. Determine, in advance, specific options for re-entering the workplace (such as reassignment if that is a legitimate or agreed upon option), in a manner that will mitigate or preclude real or perceived conflict or questions of bias resulting from the political activity.


There is irony in all of this careful consideration of political disengagement in that some media organizations and their owners publicly engage in direct and indirect political activity on a regular basis without apparent consideration or concern about it reflecting poorly or otherwise on their organization, its product or its employees.

There is also, within the profession and society, considerable and legitimate debate about what “objectivity”, “impartiality” and “independence” mean within the context of journalistic activity and whether they are practical or achievable standards or criteria by which to measure our profession. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel even suggested, in their influential The Elements of Journalism (2001 and 2007), that the "lost" concept of objectivity has become a "muddle" and "trap" best avoided altogether; instead, journalists should be expected to maintain an "independence from those they cover" and practise a "discipline of verification". Some have called this discipline an "objective method" or, in Stephen JA Ward's words, a stance of "pragmatic objectivity."

However, as chroniclers of history who help citizens make well-informed choices, working journalists bear the burden of a higher public expectation that they submit personal bias and political view to the demands and disciplines of their work. And, perhaps that is exactly as it should be. A range of independent, unencumbered and trustworthy media is a valued asset in any democratic society.

If journalists accept that the "objective method" contributes to the public trust, and that “impartiality” is not just a noble ambition but a relevant goal to honour our democratic responsibility, then it is important to strive to preserve the integrity of the ideal – even if it may sometimes mean voluntarily surrendering some personal freedoms.

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The ethics of unpublishing

Panel report by Kathy English (Chair), Tim Currie, Rod Link
Approved by the Full Committee on October 27, 2010

The Ethics Committee of the CAJ asked the unpublishing panel to propose guidelines for correcting online content and handling public requests to “unpublish” -- a word media organizations have coined to describe requests to remove published digital content from websites and online archives.

To study this issue, the panel relied heavily on a research paper English completed last year for the Associated Press Managing Editors’ Online Credibility Project, co-sponsored by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. That research “The longtail of news: To unpublish or not to unpublish” was based primarily on a survey of 110 North American news organizations to determine how the news industry is handling requests to unpublish digital content.

The issue

Life in the age of Google means that just about everything published by news organizations is now just a few clicks away from anyone with a computer. And news published online, seemingly, never dies.

Sometimes those who are the subjects of news reports want that news to disappear. Because it is technically possible to easily “unpublish” digital content in a way that was never possible in print, increasingly, media organizations are faced with requests from our audiences and those we have reported on to remove online content.

The reasons for these requests to unpublish are varied. Some contend the report is inaccurate, unfair or outdated. Some exhibit what might be called “source remorse” and rethink what they have revealed to journalists. Others cite privacy concerns and want to erase any public reports about them from online search results.

Not surprisingly, many unpublishing requests relate to published reports of criminal charges. The reality that many news organizations do not routinely follow-up on the outcome of these charges and report on acquittals or dropped charges is an issue of increasing concern for news organizations and those they report on given the permanence and easy accessibility of online content.

In many cases, unpublishing requests emerge many months, even years, after original publication when individuals named in the news understand that through Google and other search engines, that news about them is easily accessible to the general public. Perhaps the best way to understand this issue is to consider some of the requests to unpublish digital content that have been considered over the past year by various North American new organizations, including the Toronto Star.

  • A law student is charged in connection with a prank about a bomb threat in a public place. All charges against the law student are dropped well before the case goes to trial. His lawyer says he was simply "in the wrong place at the wrong time." A year later, the student requests that reports of the charges be removed from the online archive. He is job hunting and concerned that because searches of his name in Google pull up those articles he will be stigmatized.
  • A heroin addict, likely acting with impaired judgment, gives a reporter information about herself that may not be reliable. Years afterward, she has beaten her addiction, obtained an education and is seeking work as a paralegal. She asks to have the article removed to prevent it from interfering with her job search and future.
  • A real estate developer claims that a 6-month-old story about a lawsuit contained unfair/inaccurate claims and prospective clients are Googling him and seeing the accusations in the article. The suit remains active and the plaintiff has not withdrawn the claims.
  • A restaurant owner complains that a Google search turned up a years-old unfavourable review while failing to turn up a more recent positive review. He demands, under threat of lawsuit, that the earlier review be unpublished.
  • A 20-something woman discusses her divorce in a lifestyle feature. More than a year later, she seeks to have the article unpublished because she is embarrassed by what she said.
  • A man emails to suggest a news story about the ease with which he sold his home in a challenging market. The published article includes the price of his old and new home and includes a photo of the man and his family in the new home (which they willingly agreed to). The man is enraged that information about the price he paid for his new house is included and wants the online article and photo removed. He says his wife is embarrassed and does not want the children’s photo online.

Media response to this issue

For the media, requests to unpublish raise questions about accuracy and fairness, as well as trust and credibility with our readers and the communities we serve. Google says this is our problem. Those who approach the search engine to have content removed from search results are told that the information must be changed on the news site where it was published. “In order for information in Google's results to change, the information must first change on the site where it appears, and this is a change that Google is unable to make for you,” says Google’s online Webmaster Central:

“If you contact the webmaster, he or she has a few options. He or she can remove the concerning information, take the page down from the web entirely, or block Google from including the page in Google's index.”

This puts this issue squarely in the hands of news organizations.

Digital technology makes it relatively simple to alter or remove digital content. But, should news organizations make news and information disappear? What’s fair to our audiences? What’s fair to those we report on?

How do media organizations respond to such requests in a manner consistent with our journalistic principles of accuracy, accountability and transparency? Who decides if and when to make news disappear from the Internet?

These questions were examined in a 2009 report for the Associated Press Managing Editors Online Credibility Project. That report found little industry consensus on how to handle unpublishing requests. A survey of 110 North American news organizations found that 50.8 per cent of newsrooms surveyed had no policy for dealing with this issue and are handling such requests on an adhoc basis. Most agreed this is an increasingly urgent issue and they expect public requests to unpublish digital content will increase.

But, the survey found strong reluctance within news organizations to remove published digital content. Most editors believe that significant legal concerns should be the main reason for unpublishing content. A majority also think that serious threats to an individual’s personal safety by ongoing publication of news and information concerning that individual should also be given serious consideration.

Not one of the 110 editors surveyed would remove content because of source remorse. These editors expressed the strong belief that published digital content is a matter of public record and is part of our transparency contract with our audiences -- just as our newspapers and newscasts have always been. Any request to unpublish must be weighed against this overriding value. Removing published content — in effect, making news disappear — diminishes transparency and trust with our audiences.

As one newspaper editor said: “Unpublishing is a word that doesn’t accurately reflect what people are asking. They’re asking us to censor or rewrite history.”

Said another: “The fact is folks are going to have to adjust to the on-the-web-forever world. We cannot unring the bell.”

The survey indicates that the majority of editors believe the ongoing accuracy of digital content is the responsibility of news organizations. The consensus here is that once something is published, the ethical option is to leave it as it is -- so long as it is accurate.

Digital content that is found to be inaccurate should be corrected and/or amended in a transparent manner as soon as an inaccuracy is verified. Here’s what Craig Whitney, standards editor of the New York Times said in the APME survey: “We do not unpublish, but if there was an error or later information we did not publish that casts a different light on an archived article, we append a correction or an addendum to it.”

The survey also indicated that most editors think no one individual within a news organization should act as in-house “censor” and determine when digital content should be unpublished. The rare decision to remove digital content should be done through a process of consultation at the highest levels of the news organization. In many cases, this will include legal counsel.

Recommended best practices

Here are this ethics panel’s recommended best practices for handling requests to unpublish digital content:

  1. We are in the publishing business and generally should not unpublish: Published digital content is part of the historical record and should not be unpublished. News organizations do not rewrite history or make news disappear.
  2. Ongoing accuracy is our responsibility: Though we should resist unpublishing, we have a journalistic responsibility to ensure the ongoing accuracy of all published content and publish correctives and updated articles as soon as we verify errors and/or new information. In some cases, further reporting may be necessary to verify new information to append to online content, especially in cases involving charges against individuals named in the news. If we err, or if new relevant facts emerge, we should correct and update online articles. Transparency demands that we indicate to audiences that an article has been altered.
  3. Put a clear policy in place: News organizations and audiences will be best served by creating an “unpublishing” policy that stipulates the above principles and makes clear that while the online archive is more accessible to the public and can be altered easier than print content, it is no different from the newspaper archives that have always existed. The policy should be transparent and applied consistently.
  4. Unpublish for the right reasons: There may be some rare circumstances involving egregious error or violation of journalistic ethics where it is deemed necessary to remove content from the published archive. In most cases, this would be for legal reasons, including defamatory material, material that is in contravention of a publication ban or other legal restrictions. Ideally, legal counsel should be consulted in these instances and first consideration should be whether the material can be corrected/altered in a transparent manner. In the rare cases when an article is removed completely from the website, transparency requires that note should be added to the URL to acknowledge that the article has been removed.
  5. It’s fair to be human: Serious consideration to an unpublishing request should be given when someone’s life may be endangered by ongoing publication of information. Fairness to those named in the news means that there may also be some rare cases where we might unpublish content becomes it is judged to be the humane thing to do in the circumstances. Any decision to remove content deemed to be harmful to an individual must be weighed against the public’s right to know, the historical record, and the reality that the article may be cached in search engines and will likely not disappear entirely from the Internet.
  6. Source remorse is not a right reason to unpublish: We should not remove published information because sources change their minds about what they told a journalist, or decide, following publication, that they do not want news about them accessed through a search engine. If the information was gathered fairly and reported accurately, it is part of the public record and should not be altered.
  7. Unpublish by consensus: No one individual within a news organization should act as a censor and decide when to remove published content. These decisions should be made by consensus of several high-level editors.
  8. Explain your unpublishing policy: Those who seek to have published content removed may not understand the journalistic reasons to resist unpublishing. Many see the online article as an easily altered version of the story. We should make great effort to explain our unpublishing policy and help those who seek to have published material removed understand that this is an issue of integrity and credibility and reflects our sense of responsibility to our audiences, our community and the historical record.
  9. Help sources understand the implications of digital publishing: Many who seek to have articles unpublished express surprise that the article was published online and remains available online and accessible through Google and other search engines. Print and broadcast journalists should inform sources of the implications of multi-platform publishing.
  10. Consider the implications of publishing before publication: The permanence and easy accessibility of digital journalism calls for more consideration of the implications of publication before publishing. This is especially important in relation to the reporting of criminal charges and naming of those charged. Should such information be published if the news organization does not intend to follow up on reporting the outcome of those charges?

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Guidelines for re-tweeting or re-posting information found in social media

June 7, 2010

Social Media Panel Members: Bert Bruser, Tim Currie (Chair), Kirk LaPointe and Ellen Van Wageningen

The Ethics Committee of the CAJ asked the Social Media panel to propose guidelines for re-tweeting, or forwarding through social networks, information that originates from followers. The issue applies mainly to using Twitter in breaking news situations but it also applies to re-posting information in other social networks such as Facebook.

The primary issue is the risk of distributing untrue information. A related issue is the risk of seeming to endorse the opinions of others.

To study this issue, the panel looked at social media policies at major news organizations and the opinions of leading commentators on the issue.


The power of social networks to amplify breaking news reports was illustrated in January 2009 when Florida entrepreneur Janis Krums tweeted a photo of a U.S. Airways plane in New York's Hudson River. Krums had only 170 followers at the time but retweets resulted in thousands of peopleviewing the photo within minutes. The event underscored the swiftness of the medium and the potential for crowdsourced reporting from eyewitnesses first on the scene. It highlighted the growing importance of social networks in gathering information that can supplement — and improve — the work of reporters.

Five months later in June 2009, Iranians produced a flood of reports on Twitter, which offered news organizations real-time information about the protests in the country. Government suppression of independent reporting meant it was difficult to get information from other sources. The Project for Excellence in Journalism called it a "Twitter Revolution." Some journalists used the stream of information to share the perspectives of Iranians and help their social media audience better understand the event. New York Times editor Patrick LaForge re-tweeted a list of Iranians on Twitter that was created by blogger Dave Winer. He argued he was sharing information without providing judgment on it; he was letting his audience decide how they would treat it. However, journalist and academic Julie Posetti argued Laforge's action amounted to approving the list and endorsing its authenticity. She stated, "Professional journalists will be judged more harshly by society if they RT (retweet) content which later proves to be false -- particularly in the context of a crisis."

In November 2009, news organizations repeated Twitter mentions of multiple gunmen in a shooting incident at the Fort Hood army base in Texas. In fact, an army psychiatrist was the sole shooter. The Radio Television Digital News Association argues in its ethical guidelines that the news organizations used proper instincts in repeating the information — even though it was later proved to be false. If it was true, it could have saved lives. Still, the association's guidelines state: "Journalists must source information, correct mistakes quickly and prominently and remind the public that the information is fluid and could be unreliable."

Perhaps the most well-known episode of re-tweeting involves Mathew Ingram, formerly the Globe and Mail's communities editor.

In October 2008, Ingram tweeted that a citizen media update on CNN's iReport was claiming that Apple CEO Steve Jobs had suffered a heart attack. The iReport piece led to a significant — but temporary — decline in the price of Apple's stock. Ingram soon found out the report was untrue and issued a clarification but he was sharply criticized for his actions. In his blog he later called his initial decision a mistake, saying he should have waited to verify it. But nine months later, he told CBC Radio's Ira Basen for his radio documentary "I might have posted it anyway." He called the event "a sign of journalism as a process working," suggesting that, instead of being absent in the real-time social flow of information, journalists should "rely on people to make their own judgments."

CUNY School of Journalism Professor Jeff Jarvis calls this perspective "journalism as beta" and argues that forwarding unconfirmed information is acceptable journalistic practice as long as journalists label the information as unconfirmed. He says web culture is "a call to collaborate" — and likens the demands on the audience to that of 24-hour cable news, "where the viewer must become the editor, understanding the difference between what is known now and what can be confirmed later."

Journalist and social media advocate Gina Chen agrees, saying, "One of the beauties of social media is its fluidity. It would be impossible for all of the millions of people on Twitter to verify every tweet before passing it on. Twitter isn't a news medium. I think there's an expectation that Twitter is the start of a conversation to prompt people to find out more, not the be all and end all."However, the practice of "re-tweet first, verify later" would seem at odds with established journalistic practice of verifying before publishing. The Associated Press's social media guidelines, as disclosed to, state: "Don't report things or break news that we haven't published, no matter the format, and that includes retweeting unconfirmed information not fit for AP's wires." The implied argument is that a journalist or news organization's reputation is built on a record of accurate "publishing" — in any form. Being a reliable source of information at all times is paramount. The risk of distributing untrue information threatens an organization's reputation.

Journalist Robert Niles however, argues, that the effect of such a policy is that news organizations become absent in the social media conversation of breaking news events. He argues instead that: "smart news organizations should acknowledge to their followers and readers that they know the report is out there and that people are talking about it, and report where the organization is with its own reporting." He states further "Yes, this means acknowledging rumor. But ... traditional newsroom silence on rumors don't make them go away."

In considering these views, ethicist Stephen Ward suggests that any guidelines balance the strengths of social media, including "its love of collaboration and transparency." However, it must also adhere to a plurality of ethical principles as to "how well they honour or violate the principles of journalism as a whole."

Journalist and community engagement advocate Steve Buttry argues against blanket prohibitions in social media policies, saying such phrasing reflects "old-media opaqueness and control, rather than new-media transparency." He argues instead for social media policies that include "recognition of the fact that social media help us collaborate, continue and improve our stories."

Overview of Newsroom Guidelines

A growing number of media organizations are establishing guidelines for social media use. Most of these policies see social media as an important tool for newsgathering and audience engagement. At the same time they caution against publishing anything that brings the organization into disrepute. Many policies address using Twitter as a reporting tool. However, relatively few address the issue of journalists forwarding information through social media in an effort to build community and participate in real-time conversations of news events.

The following is a summary of the ones that do:

The L.A. Times policy is similar to AP's. It applies traditional standards of publishing to Twitter use, stating: "Authentication is essential: Verify sourcing after collecting information online. When transmitting information online – as in re-Tweeting material from other sources – apply the same standards and level of caution you would in more formal publication."

The BBC, however, encourages re-tweeting while cautioning users against appearing to endorse the content. It states (PDF): "It may not be enough to write on your BBC microblog's biography page that "retweeting" does not signify endorsement, particularly if the views expressed are about politics or a matter of controversial public policy. Instead you should consider adding your own comment to the "tweet" you have selected, making it clear why you are forwarding it and where you are speaking in your own voice and where you are quoting someone else's."

Reuters' policy states generally that material from social media sites "can help us enhance our reporting, and our reputation, and this trend should be embraced." But it encourages people to be "wary of information or images posted by Twitter etc users" and advises: "Strict criteria should be applied in deciding whether to use it, and if we do so, we must be clear about what we know and don't know about its provenance." Reuters allows for "'retweeting' (re-publishing) someone else's scoop," but encourages a critical eye. It states: "It's simple to share a link on Twitter, Facebook and other networks but as a Reuters journalist if you repeat something that turns out to be a hoax, or suggests you support a particular line of argument, then you risk undermining your own credibility and that of Reuters News."

The Washington Post's social media policy states generally that "Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything... that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility."

The Roanoke (Virginia) Times advises against issuing reports of breaking news on Twitter, stating: "While Twitter represents a growing audience for us online ... we should generally post breaking news first on the site, then tweet the URL."


The panel concludes that participation in real-time conversations can be an important newsgathering and audience-building tool for journalists and the organizations they represent. It represents a new and valuable resource that can enhance journalism.

However, forwarding information that is ultimately proven untrue comes with risks that include:

  • Harming people. Information could give away the location of a police tactical unit in a hostage situation or give a person contemplating a suicide a greater audience. It could also cause a panic if it mentioned that a bomb had been found in an office tower.
  • Moving financial markets: Information about a business or a business leader could lead to rapid rises or declines in stock prices.
  • Violating common decency: Information could cause undue emotional distress to people if it identifies victims (by name or social media username), especially if relatives have not been notified.

The panel stresses that people who work in the news media should always strive to produce the most accurate and credibly sourced work they can. In doing so, the best approach is always to verify information before forwarding it through social networks.

Traditional journalistic values remain unchanged as new technologies emerge. The challenge facing journalists is to apply these values to rapidly changing means of communication.

However, the panel acknowledges that gathering and sharing information within social media constitutes a process of journalism, not a finished product. Consequently, frequent updates and clarifications are crucial.

The panel acknowledges that criteria for forwarding information would be useful. However, it views forwarding information through social networks as a rapidly evolving and  amorphous practice that makes establishing criteria difficult. For example, journalists would normally apply different standards of verification depending on the context of the information being forwarded. A surprising tweet with strong news value might require corroboration, whereas a lighthearted observation in the form of opinion might require none.

The decision to forward unverified information should always weigh the value of getting information out to the audience quickly with the risk of causing harm. In particular, journalists should apply extreme caution and skepticism to surprising information tweeted by third parties — especially when it reflects negatively on a person or an organization.

If journalists choose to forward information through social networks that they cannot verify, the panel suggests they consider the following guidelines:

  • Journalists should, at all times, seek to verify the source of the information by applying the usual skepticism to the source of unverified information.

    For example:

    • Who is the source?
    • How is the source likely to know this? What is their ability to obtain the information first hand?
    • What does the source's past history say about their credibility? Does the source have some record in their social media history of seriousness and reputable behaviour?
    • Where does the source get funding?
    • What are the source's possible political allegiances?

Some useful resources are contained in Craig Kanalley's How to verify a Tweet.

  • Journalists should issue updates, including corrections, on the status of their follow-up investigations promptly and frequently. (Eg. "The original report was untrue" or "We can't confirm the report")

Some good advice is available in Craig Silverman's article on correcting tweets.

  • Journalists should take note of Twitter's Verified Accounts feature, which authenticates a user's identify, and use it as a tool for building trusted relationships with Twitter sources.

Read More

Final briefing on news blackouts

News Blackouts panel members:  Ethan Faber (Chair), Sadia Zamanm, Ivor Shapiro

The Ethics Committee of the CAJ asked this panel to explore the following questions posed by the CAJ's Board:

Under what circumstances should outlets agree to news blackouts like the one media agreed to on the Mellissa Fung kidnapping? What are the pitfalls, what questions should editors ask, is there a different standard that should be applied to journalists as opposed to other kidnap victims?

To study this issue, the panel looked into several cases of abductions and hostage-taking involving journalists and non-journalists where blackouts were requested or not, and complied with or not. In addition, the panel contacted senior people within several leading news organizations, including The Canadian Press, CBC, CTV, Global News, Canwest News Service, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star and The Ottawa Citizen. This briefing summarizes what we learned and our conclusions.

To see the survey, click here. For the briefing's list of cases information, click here. For the CBC's guidelines, click here.


It is impossible to do a complete count but we know that many news agencies from around the world have had employees kidnapped in Iraq or Afghanistan.  We also know that in many of these cases, news blackouts have been requested by the journalists employers and most of those requests have been granted by the vast majority of so-called mainstream media outlets.  Recent, high profile examples of kidnappings and subsequent news blackouts include the CBC’s Mellissa Fung and The New York Times’ David Rohde and Stephen Farrell and their respective interpreters/fixers.  Links to background articles on these and other cases are attached at the bottom of this briefing.  Our research reveals that besides the CBC and the Times, blackout requests have also been made by CTV, NBC and CBS, among others.

It seems safe to assume that in all of these cases the employers argued that a blackout was necessary to protect the safety of the victim.  There appears to be a widely held belief that negotiations with kidnappers could be more difficult if they become aware that they’re holding a “big fish.”  Another concern is that kidnappers could become spooked by publicity and more inclined to kill their captive and disappear. The belief that these dangers may generally attach to reporting is neither supported nor refuted by convincing evidence, but it is understandable that no one would want to be the one potentially causing death to a kidnap victim.

While there are many examples of blackout requests stemming from war-zone kidnappings, it should be pointed out that news outlets may also receive blackout requests under different circumstances.  The most common domestic example of this would be next of kin notification, in which local police ask the media to refrain from identifying a deceased person until the family has been informed.  This example does not appear to be controversial.  Local police might also request a blackout while investigating a kidnapping, hostage-taking or other criminal investigation, but these requests are not so straightforward.  On April 4th, 2006, a UBC student was kidnapped at gunpoint in a Vancouver intersection in broad daylight.  After giving interviews to reporters about the incident, the Vancouver Police suddenly asked for a media blackout, but when asked, the department failed to provide local newsrooms with an explanation for the request.  That evening, one local television station made the decision to refuse the request and broadcast the story.  The rest of the local media soon followed. There have also been suggestions that ethnicity could sometimes be a factor in deciding whether or not to ask for a news blackout, but the panel has not discovered evidence related to this contention.

The Problem

Our sources have identified two key ethical issues that arise for news managers when faced with a blackout request.  A key value held dearly by journalists is that information of public interest should be conveyed to the public.  There appears to be a strong consensus that we can deviate from this approach only in exceptional circumstances and there is concern about surrendering editorial decision making to an outside source.  Former CTV News Director Tom Walters told the panel:

As I see it, the problem with any request to suppress information is not just that it incites a brawl between competing visions of the public interest.  It’s that, by definition, it requires us to accept a generally unacceptable premise:  that the facts should be held hostage in an effort to control the way someone might react to them.  And it requires us to accept a generally unacceptable demand; that we choose information not on the basis of editorial judgment, but in order to engineer a particular outcome.

The other key issue is whether a blackout request involving the kidnapping of a journalist should be treated any differently than a request involving someone in another profession.


Every journalist weve spoken to or seen quoted in the literature about this issue agrees that blackout requests need to be considered very carefully and require newsrooms to gather facts on which to make a decision.  Most agree in that often-used phrase, "no story is worth a human life." On the other hand, most agree, too, that the available facts seldom, if ever, dictate a clear response to the blackout request. Current CTV News Director and former Vancouver Sun and CBC reporter Margo Harper told the panel:

If the event is a kidnapping, where authorities are asking for a blackout to ensure the safety of the victim, we must be satisfied that the act of reporting will materially endanger the individual involved.  We must ask ourselves:  are we convinced that our actions in reporting the kidnapping could lead to the death of the victim, or dramatically compound the negotiations potentially leading to the release?  If the answer to those questions is yes, then there is an argument for a blackout.  If the answer is no, then the argument for broadcasting what we know is compelling.

Walters asks a similar question,

Does it serve the compelling need of a legitimate interest?  And how much harm does it do to the public interest?

In addition, Paul Knox, a former foreign correspondent and foreign editor of The Globe and Mail, cautioned in a December 2008 J-Source column against setting too much store by security experts' recommendations:

Some say listen to the experts. But the experts - especially those paid to advise the employers of kidnapped personnel - are hardly impartial observers. If professional security consultants had their way, stories about kidnappings would rarely appear except after the fact.

On the issue of whether requests involving kidnapped journalists should be treated differently than requests for blackouts involving people in other professions, the news managers we’ve spoken with say no.  There is clearly a perception that journalists may be protecting their own because of the considerable coverage of other kidnappings, but that perceived double standard may be a result of the contacts newsroom managers have with other decision makers in the industry.  When a journalist is kidnapped, their news managers back home know who to call to make a blackout request before the story begins to leak out.  That kind of quick action is not necessarily possible when people in other professions are kidnapped, and by the time a blackout request is made in those circumstances, the story may have already been widely reported.


Based on its study and interviews, the panels finds that:

  • It is not possible to assess to what extent blackouts affect the outcome of abductions and hostage-taking events.
  • More blackouts have been requested, and agreed to, where journalists were victims of abductions or taken hostage, than is the case with non-journalists.
  • Journalists involved in decision-making about blackouts agree that a double standard should not exist, but in practice journalists are more likely to benefit from having closer relations within the industry.
  • Blackout requests are treated as exceptions and reviewed on a case-by-case basis, usually by the top editors of the organizations.
  • Decision-makers say that a party requesting the blackout must provide strong reasons to support the request, especially as to why reporting is likely to increase risk.
  • No news organization has a comprehensive policy dealing specifically with blackout requests, but the CBC comes closest in its "Guidelines on Covering Kidnapping and Hostage Situations."


Making the wrong decision on whether or not to grant a news blackout has great potential for harm - harm to the public interest, harm to the credibility of the news media, and harm to the individuals involved.  Given the risks on all sides, and the complexity and individuality of the cases, the panel understands that a one-size-fits-all policy would not be adequate to address what will always be a difficult issue for newsrooms.

Nevertheless, the panel suggests that news organizations should ask the following questions when considering a blackout request:

  • Have strong, specific reasons been provided to support the blackout request? Are those reasons rooted in specifics of this case or a general assumption that reporting in this type of instance may result in harm? Is that assumption supported by evidence?
  • Are we convinced that our actions in reporting the kidnapping could lead to the death of the victim, or dramatically compound the negotiations potentially leading to the release?
  • Is the requested blackout short-term or time-limited? If not, will the request be reviewed after a defined period of time?
  • Is a special favour being asked to protect a journalist? If so, would we agree to this request if the person being protected were not a journalist?
  • Have senior people within our organization as well as news people in the field been consulted about the request, and their various views taken into account?
  • Have we weighed the potential harm to individuals against the potential of harm to the public interest and harm to the credibility of the news media?
  • How will our response to this request compare to our responses to similar situations in the past, and how may we justify a perceived inconsistency with such precedents?
  • Are we committed to making full disclosure about the circumstances of the blackout once the perceived impediment to reporting has passed?

More reading:

Times reporter freed from captivity, news blackout lifted (Sep 10/09 - includes background links)

Public Editor: Journalistic Ideals, Human Values (Clark Hoyt, July 4/09) [requires subscription or database access].

Reporting on a kidnapping: do journalists get special treatment? (July 6/09)

Kidnapped Times reporter escapes after seven months: news blackout lifted (Jun 22/09)

News blackouts quite common (Melissa Wilson, Apr 20/09)

In covering kidnappings, news calls are all about the details (Paul Knox, Dec 2/08)

Truth or consequences? The Mellissa Fung case (Stephen Ward, Nov 17/08)

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Protection of sources

From: CAJ Ethics Committee
Re:  Protection of Sources 
November 10, 2009

The Board’s referral:
How far should reporters go to protect their sources and are there any cases in which it is acceptable or morally advisable to reveal a source? For example, thinking of the Maher Arar case and possibly the Charkaoui case that the Montreal Gazette is involved in, if CSIS or the RCMP or some government agency has leaked erroneous information to discredit someone, is a reporter’s obligation or promise to keep a source confidential rendered void? This question, along with a private members bill on source protection drafted by Bloc MP Serge Menard, consumed the board last year and sparked some extremely interesting debates. We want advice on shield laws, whether blanket protection is advisable or whether there are some occasions where a reporter ought to reveal a source.

Essentially, this boils down to three questions:

1. How far should reporters go to protect their sources?

2. Are there any cases in which it is acceptable or morally advisable to reveal a source?

3. How should these principles be applied in any shield law?

1.   How far should reporters go to protect their sources? The first question is adequately answered in the existing CAJ Code of Ethics. (See appendix). It states that confidential or anonymous sources should only be used as a last resort. Any arrangement about how far a journalist is willing to go to protect the sources identity should be clearly spelled out.

2.  Are there any cases in which it is acceptable or morally advisable to reveal a source? In certain rare circumstances, yes.When journalists use confidential sources, their contract and their obligation is, as always, first and foremost to the public, not to the source. Revealing a source would be justified, for example, if a government source or agency leaked erroneous information – but only if they knew it to be wrong, not if they too were fooled or misled. Governments, police or other groups often leak information with the deliberate attempt to “spin” the news.  If they have lied to you to get their version of the story out, they deserve to be exposed. That is why it is all the more important to check your sources and their motives.

RECOMMENDATION: If a source knowingly lies or hides an important part of the truth about a major issue or fact in the story, your obligation is to the truth, not the source. He or she has broken his contract with you and you can break your promise of confidentiality to the source.

Reveal the minimum:

In some cases, a source may release you of your obligation to keep their identity confidential. Or he or she may have broken the deal by lying.

Even then, you should reveal only the minimum – the name only, for example. Not necessarily the details of how and when you met, what documents were handed over, etc. In one case involving a member of the ethics committee, military police were investigating an army source who was quoted anonymously in a book about criminal gangs. The source had subsequently been beaten up by gangs and investigators were checking into whether the published interview had anything to do with his beating. The source was cooperating with the investigation and authorized the journalist to reveal his name. Even in those circumstances, the journalist declined to discuss what, if any documents the sources passed on or any other details of their encounter.  This is necessary to protect all your other sources and your professional integrity. If people found out journalists were disclosing not just names of our sources – even with their permission -- but other details of your information-gathering process, your confidential sources would dry up and your investigations would be impeded.

Difficult questions:

How far should media companies and journalists go to protect sources? Here are some questions to consider:

  • Is it ethical to destroy a document that might reveal a source?
  • Some media outlets insist that at least one senior management or editor know the full identity of a reporter’s source (to prevent fraud and other errors). But some journalists feel in a era where management and bosses change frequently, that could be dangerous.
  • Some media companies allow reporters to keep safety deposit boxes off-site that only they have access to. Is that necessary or going too far?

3. How should these principles be applied in any shield law?

The CAJ board is either split or uncertain as to whether to support federal shield laws to protect confidential sources of journalists, and has asked the ethics committee for advice.

The question boils down to:

Under what circumstances, if any, is it ethical for a journalist – when ordered to do so by a court – to break a promise to keep a source confidential?

Let’s look at the state of Canada’s laws, some international examples (Belgium,the US and Brazil) and what we can recommend to the board.

Canada’s laws How we respond to each of these issues will depend to some extent on existing laws in Canada relating to protection of sources.  There are no federal shield laws, and the common law, for the first time in more than twenty years, is now before the Supreme Court of Canada in the National Post v. Canada case.  The case was argued in the spring, and a decision could come at any time during the next few months.

In the Post case, the lower court judge placed great weight on the importance of freedom of the press.  She emphasized the importance of protecting confidential sources to ensure that stories of public interest continue to be brought to light.  The judge concluded that the documents in question would only nominally advance the police investigation that was going on, but that disclosure of them would damage freedom of expression.  She ruled that the documents did not have to be turned over by the National Post.

The Ontario Court of Appeal overturned this decision and ordered the documents produced.  The Court of Appeal recognized that the gathering and dissemination of news and information without undue state interference is an integral component of the s. 2(b) right to freedom of the press.  But the court ruled that this does not guarantee that journalists have an automatic right to protect the confidentiality of their sources.  What is required is a balancing of the interests of the media and the interests of the state, or society.

Subject to what happens in the Supreme Court of Canada, the law can be stated:  confidential sources must be disclosed where, in weighing the various interests of the media, including recognition of the importance that confidential sources play in the proper dissemination of information, and the state, including the administration of justice, the balance tips in favour of the state.  How this balance tips in each case will of course depend on the facts and the prejudices of the court hearing the case.

Menard’s Bill:

It is impossible to predict what the SCC will do with this.  And until the SCC makes its decision, my view is that it would be extremely difficult to advise the CAJ on shield laws, or to answer the question set out at the top of this memo.

Bill C-426, the private member’s bill designed to protect journalists’ sources that was given first reading in April, 2007, and is now dead, basically said that no journalist shall be required to disclose a confidential source, unless disclosure is in the public interest.

Such a bill would not really change the existing law, as articulated by the Ontario Court of Appeal in the National Post case.  The bill, like the common law, calls for a balancing of the interests of the media and those of the state.

Both the bill, and the common law, recognize that there are circumstances where state interests require a journalist to break his promise and divulge a source.

Belgium law:

In Belgium, a law adopted in 2005 and considered a very good one by Reporters Without Borders, gives extensive protection to journalists. It allows them to shield not only the identity of their sources, but also any documents, video or other information that could lead to the revelation of the source’s identity.

This law is not a free pass for journalists. The law lays out 4 strict criteria that must be met to oblige a journalist to identify a source:

  1. A judge’s order
  2. The information demanded must be needed to prevent the commission of “a major crime that may be dangerous for the physical integrity of an individual or individuals”
  3. The information demanded must be “crucial for the prevention” of such crimes
  4. There must no other way to obtain that information

United States:

About 40 states in the U.S. have shield laws and for the most part these laws recognize that a journalist must reveal a source in certain circumstances.

At the federal level, the US Congress is currently studying a “media shield” bill that would require prosecutors to exhaust other methods for finding the source of the information before subpoenaing a reporter, and would balance investigators’ interests with “the public interest in gathering news and maintaining the free flow of information.” It could protect reporters from being imprisoned if they refuse to disclose confidential sources who leak material about national security.

The House has already approved a version of the shield bill, but it has stalled in the Senate.The Obama administration opposes the legislation and is seeking amendments so that protection of journalists and their sources would not apply to leaks of a matter deemed to cause “significant” harm to national security. Moreover, judges would be instructed to be deferential to executive branch assertions about whether a leak caused or was likely to cause such harm, according to officials familiar with the proposal. (Source: New York Times)


The Brazilian Constitution protects the “confidentiality of the source, when necessary to professional activity”, which includes doctors and priests, for example. In relation to journalists,  the Brazilian Supreme Court has interpreted that as an absolute protection, giving journalists a right to non-disclosure of sources and information against any sort of sanctions, whether administrative, criminal or civil, including court remedies. In practice, a judge cannot order a journalist to provide a name or a document used in a news piece. Of note, it is only the journalists’ right to silence that is absolute, not what’s eventually published, so journalists and publishers are still liable for the content they publish.

The absolute protection enjoyed in Brazil is probably too simplistic and politically unattainable in Canada, but it stands as an example.

RECOMMENDATION: No shield law will ever give absolute protection to sources. The laws will always try to strike some kind of balance or trade-off. It is pointless to ask for a law that gives 100% unbreakable protection of sources (even lawyers, doctors or priests don’t have that kind of confidentiality protection.)

So either the CAJ opposes any kind of shield law if it thinks no law will ever go far enough, or it decides what trade-offs or balances are acceptable.

APPENDIX: Use of confidential and anonymous sources [EXCERPTED FROM CAJ’S ETHIC GUIDELINES]

A. When is it appropriate to use them:

We should strive to fully identify the sources in our stories – for credibility and accountability. When sources are secret, the reader or audience has less information on which to judge the reliability of the source’s comments. Also, anonymity might encourage the source to make irresponsible statements.

However, confidential sources can be a vital tool in the free flow of information. There can be clear and pressing reasons to protect anonymity. In print media, we may conceal the identity of interview subjects by changing their names or by not naming the source. In broadcast, we may protect identities through digital or other technical methods, such as  concealing an interviewee’s face or distorting their voice.

We should use such methods only when the participation of the subject puts them at risk of harm or personal hardship (i.e., a whistleblower who might lose his/her job, or a mole within organized crime.)

BHow they should be identified:

We will explain the need for anonymity to our readers and audiences. Confidential sources should be identified as accurately as possible by affiliation or status. (For example, a “senior military source” must be both senior and in the military.)

We will identify a source from a critical or opposing side of a controversy as such. Any vested interest or potential bias on the part of a source must be revealed.

C. How they should be checked:

Use of anonymous sources requires the prior approval of at least one senior editorial person (or manager) who knows the full identity of the source. This ensures editorial control, verification and honesty. The disclosure of sources among journalists within a news organization is not the same as the public disclosure of sources.

We must know the full identity of the anonymous source (e.g., full name, phone number, method of contact, history and background). “Anonymous” does not mean we know little about the person. It means we know everything, and are offering an agreed-upon level of protection.

More than one source should be used to verify a story or fact. If only one source is available, we must say so.

We will not allow anonymous sources to take cheap shots at individuals or organizations. We will independently corroborate facts, if we get them from a source we do not name.

D. How they should be protected:

Promising sources that we will keep their identities confidential is not enough. We must spell out, precisely, two things:

  • what the level of confidentiality is
  • how far you are willing to go to protect the source

There are three levels of confidentiality:

Not for attribution: We may quote statements directly but the source may not be named, although a general description of his or her position may be given (“a government official,” or “a party insider”). In TV and radio, the identity may be shielded by changing the voice or appearance.

On background: We may use the thrust of statements and generally describe the source, but we may not use direct quotes.

Off the record: We may not report the information, which can be used solely to help our own understanding or perspective. There is not much point in knowing something if it can't be reported, so this undertaking should be used sparingly, if at all.

We will make it clear from the start how far we are willing to go in protecting a source.

We may be ordered by a court or judicial inquiry to divulge confidential sources upon threat of jail. If you are willing to go to jail to protect a source, say so. Otherwise, spell out the conditions. To protect your credibility or your company’s finances, you may tell the source you will have to reveal their identity in order to win a damaging lawsuit.

Make it clear that if a source lies or misleads you, all agreements are off.

We should not make any commitments to anonymous sources without consultation with senior management. Journalists should be wary about entering into arrangements that they cannot fulfill.  Sometimes sources request additional protection. For example, they may ask for legal assistance or protection if they are revealed or endangered. If you and your employer agree this is reasonable, spell out the terms.

When promising confidentiality we should bear in mind that Canadian journalists are not protected by “shield laws,” as in the United States. However, an Ontario Superior Court judge has recognized that forcing journalists to break promises of confidentiality would seriously harm the media’s constitutional right to gather and disseminate information.

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Policy paper on editorial independence

"Problems arise when editors publish material that offends powerful individuals or groups, but that’s exactly why editorial independence is needed. Journals should be on the side of the powerless not the powerful, the governed not the governors. If readers once hear that important, relevant, and well argued articles are being suppressed or that articles are published simply to fulfill hidden political agendas, then the credibility of the publication collapses — and everybody loses.”

British Medical Journal, 2004


In recent years, the credibility of print, broadcast and online journalists has been eroded by frequent accounts of news stories spiked or killed because of pressure from advertisers or from owners wielding their personal political views. That has left the impression among reporters and citizens alike that there exists a quiet assault on the ability of journalists to give a fair account of all sides of an issue, without meddling from advertisers or owners.

The firm separation between a news outlet’s editorial  and business functions is critical in maintaining the independence of journalists. A free press that is trusted and respected by citizens as fair-minded and untainted by the personal whims of owners or the corporate interests of advertisers is paramount in a democracy. It’s also critical to the long-term financial viability of a newspaper or broadcast outlet. If readers and viewers lose faith in a news outlet’s autonomy, they will abandon it.

1. General Guidelines

1a — The personal or political views of the owner or publisher should not interfere with day-to-day news content or the individual opinions of columnists. That includes decisions about what to cover, how to cover it and where to place the story in a newspaper, magazine or broadcast news program. Only reporters and editors should make those decisions. It’s understood that the owner or publisher is responsible for the overall content and that they can suggest story ideas or pass on views, but they should not assign or determine the content or tone of a story. At all times, the owner or publisher should have an arms-length relationship to the editorial function.

1b — To further define editorial responsibility, it is useful to provide clarity around the function of the publication or broadcast news program through a succinct mission statement that accurately describes the aims, values and overall plans of the publication or program.

1c — In the event of a conflict between the editorial and business functions, it is necessary to have an oversight mechanism. This could take the form of a memorandum of understanding that clearly defines the roles and responsibilities of each group, an ombudsman such as those found at the CBC or The Toronto Star or an editorial board or oversight committee such as the one at the Canadian Medical Association Journal.  It could also include an advocacy committee made up of readers or members of the public.

1d — The CAJ’s Statement of Principles and Ethics has guided this policy paper. Special mind should be paid to the responsibility of a reporter to avoid giving favoured treatment to advertisers and to disclose any conflicts of interest, such as free travel junkets.

1e — Similarly, journalists and editors should avoid personal relationships and political or community affiliations that could compromise the independence of their news coverage.

1f — Any relationships or affiliation that could be perceived as a conflict of interest should be disclosed to the reader or viewer to ensure transparency.

2. Advertisements

2a — Journalists should avoid being spokespeople for products or companies and should disclose any conflicts of interest prominently so viewers, readers or online readers are aware.

2b — Complete operational separation should be maintained between editorial staff and advertising staff. Advertising staff should never attempt to influence new coverage in any way, whether it relates to a current client or not.

2c — No editorial content should be published or broadcast in an attempt to sell an advertisement to a specific client or with the specific intent to earn advertising revenue. Conversely, no media outlet should offer to publish or broadcast a story about an advertiser as an incentive to sell an ad.

2d — Advertisers should not be allowed to stipulate the placement of their ads in close proximity to a specific story about them. Similarly, the juxtaposition of editorial material and advertising on the same products should be avoided in order to prevent readers from questioning the objectivity of the editorial content.

2e — Editorial staff should not be instructed or encouraged to change or withhold editorial content in an attempt to curry favour with or avoid angering an advertiser or potential advertising client. It must be acknowledged that, besides pulling their bylines or refusing to voice a story, reporters have little recourse when this occurs, short of resigning. They look to editors to stand firm in the face of pressure from advertisers. That speaks to the need for an oversight body or ombudsman.

2f  — Editorial content should not be shown to any advertising sales representatives or client prior to publication or broadcast.

2g – Online content should clearly distinguish advertisers’ links and ads from editorial copy and links. Advertisers’ links outside the body of a story should be clearly labeled as such. And, advertisers should not be permitted to pay for links embedded in news stories.

2h — News outlets should disclose the source of photos and video footage not produced by journalists, such as promotional material from a company or materials provided by authorities.

2i — Editorial staff should not be required to prepare special advertising sections for their own publications, or for other publications in their company. In the same vein, the names of editors from the editorial section should not appear on special advertising sections.

2j — Radio and television reporters should not lend their voices to commercials, nor should they be used in product placement segments. Advertising involving journalists and public affairs broadcasters should not be disguised as news and information programming. If a radio segment is paid for by an advertiser, that should be disclosed frequently throughout the segment, not only at the end.

2k – All news outlets should create internally a list of guidelines for editors and advertising sales reps that clarify the segregation of editorial and ad functions and stipulates that an advertiser won’t be guaranteed positive editorial coverage if an ad is purchased.

3. Print Advertorials

Advertorials are advertisements with a story or large textual component meant to mimic genuine news content. Their existence speaks to the persuasive power of news stories produced by independent reporters to inform, educate and influence public opinion. That role should not be abused or undermined by disguising advertising as news.

3a – All readers should be able to readily distinguish between advertising and editorial material. Print advertorials should be clearly labeled as advertising copy, horizontally, at the top of the page, in a point size that’s significantly larger than the body of the text, in a colour that contrasts with the background colour of the page. Similarly, the design and typeface of the advertorial should be markedly different from editorial content. The advertorial typeface and design should not deliberately mimic that of editorial copy.

3b — Advertorials should only be produced by advertising staff or agents, rather than editorial writers or editors. Journalists shouldn’t be pressured to produce advertorials. Similarly, advertorials should not be written by freelancers who normally cover the ad client, the client’s products or the industry.

3c – Advertorials should not be promoted on either the cover or in the newspaper or magazine’s table of contents.

4. Advertiser-sponsored special sections or broadcast segments

These are special newspaper sections, editions of a magazine or broadcast sponsored and conceived of by an advertiser and focused around a specific theme but that allow editorial staff full control over content.

4a — Special ad sections should be clearly marked as different from special investigative or feature reports produced by reporters.

4b — Special editorial sections produced by journalists on a particular topic, sponsored by advertising clients, do not necessarily violate CAJ principles of editorial independence, provided:

i. Neither the client nor the advertising sales staff has any input into the content.

ii. The story ideas were generated by editorial staff, not by advertising sales staff or clients.

iii. Neither the clients, nor the sales representatives, are given the opportunity to review editorial copy prior to publication.

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