Our news not for sale
Wednesday, December 12, 2012 5:36 AM
Lately, we've had several people asking us if we charge for press releases. For those not up with journalism terminology, press releases are notices of events or announcements sent to us by organizations or businesses to publish in our newspaper as news.
Once newspapers get a press release, they decide if a release is truly news and, if it does have news value, edits it to fit the standards of the newspaper. Some newspapers may feel the release isn't worthy of publication and discard it. If the news release is published, it is clearly labeled as news and readers will determine if it is worthy of their time.
I've never heard of any reputable newspaper charging businesses or organizations to run their release as news. If that were the case, how would readers ever trust what is published in that newspaper? That would indicate that the news in that publication is being sold to the highest bidder.
Of course, the changing news environment, and not an individual newspaper policy, may be leading to these questions of the handling of news releases submitted to our newspaper. After all, so much news is being sponsored by advertisers that it makes you wonder if news eventually becomes thought of as just a bland commodity to gain sponsors rather than something that should enlighten readers.
Unlike many businesses, there are no licenses to operate a newspaper and few regulations other than from the postal service regarding qualifications for mailing and the state for taxes and employment. However, there are certain standards that most newspapers adhere to.
For example, the Society of Professional Journalists has a code of ethics that is voluntarily embraced by thousands of journalists and is widely used in newsrooms and classrooms as a guide for ethical behavior. The code isn't a set of "rules," but is used as a resource for ethical decision-making.
One reason it isn't a set of rules is because journalists run into so many circumstances, many of them having shades of gray, that it is difficult to come up with a rule for each situation. They aren't enforceable, of course, because the First Amendment gives all of us the right to free speech, even if we use it unethically.
As noted in the preamble to the code of ethics, the members believe "that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility."
The code of ethics has four main pillars, which are listed below. Within each category are several points, just a very few of which are briefly included in my descriptions.
"Seek truth and report it: Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information." In addition to ensuring that journalists test accuracy and avoid misrepresentation, this section also states that journalists should distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.
"Minimize harm: Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect." Violation of this portion of the code has been apparent lately as some British tabloids have gone to unwarranted lengths to get information.
"Act independently: Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know." Again, there is the warning that journalists should avoid conflicts of interest and be wary of sources offering information for favors or money.
"Be accountable: Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other." In other words, journalists should abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.
Although we're far from perfect, we try to maintain the ethical standards of our profession. I believe in the ideals of an independent, free press and strive to maintain ethical standards.
Thus, it is offensive that people are even inquiring to see if we sell our news. We strive to provide as much transparency as we demand of the governments we cover.
I can guarantee our news isn't sold and that we will always try to maintain the integrity of this honored profession even if there are no laws forcing me into this stance.