“The integrity we earn by maintaining our principles is our most valuable asset. Without it, we lose the public trust essential to a vigorous and effective press.”
That’s the introduction to The Tribune’s Code of Ethics, which governs how our journalists operate.
In light of Thursday’s $1.1 million libel verdict against two Cal Coast News writers, I thought it would be an opportune time to review these standards.
▪ When we pursue a story, we seek the truth by checking with multiple sources who are in a position to have firsthand information about the issue. We identify ourselves as Tribune reporters (or editors, photographers and news assistants) and explain why we are calling and the information we’re seeking.
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▪ We strive to provide the proper context for our stories by interviewing enough people and reading enough background information so that we have framed the story correctly — and so our readers can better understand the issue.
▪ We always name sources unless information that is critical to a story can only be obtained by promising anonymity to an individual — and on those rare occasions when we do grant anonymity, we typically require two sources who know the information firsthand before publishing it.
▪ If we make a mistake, we correct that error immediately online and in print in a transparent way so readers know exactly what we’re correcting. Some websites simply change a story to correct the error — or unpublish the story. We don’t. If an online story is incorrect, we’ll add an editor’s note to the story that says “Correction” and clearly note what we have corrected.
▪ Occasionally, we’re asked if it’s possible to create a package deal for news and advertising — or asked to publish news stories because the company has advertised in The Tribune or on our website at www.sanluisobispo.com.
Our response is always the same: No. Our news and advertising executives certainly talk to each other, but we have always kept news and advertising decisions separate.
All decisions regarding news coverage and placement of stories in the newspaper and on our website are made solely by the news staff, independent of whether a company or individual chooses to advertise with The Tribune.
We maintain that separation to ensure the independence and integrity of our news report. Readers count on us — and trust us — for that independence.
To be sure, our society’s increasing hunger for breaking news instantaneously means we have less time to deliberate as we’re chasing a developing story. If we’re short-staffed and not careful, we run the risk of ignoring the ethical standards that have long governed our work.
That’s why we have made it clear to our staff that we don’t post breaking news online or share it through social media until after verifying the information, even if it means we don’t break the news first.
We also often deliberate this important question: Does the public’s right to know outweigh the individual’s right to privacy?
Last Sunday, for example, when reporters Lindsey Holden and Gabby Ferreira wrote about local undocumented immigrants who are worried whether they’ll be deported since the Department of Homeland Security began its crackdown, we did not give their full names. We took that step because of uncertain federal immigration enforcement rules. It was far more important to share the women’s fear and how deportation would affect their families than it was to name them, we concluded.
Our mission has long been to provide useful, relevant, compelling and investigative coverage of issues that matter to you and to look over the shoulders of our elected officials to make sure they are spending our tax dollars wisely, among other things.
But we do so carefully, operating as a public trust — one that seeks truth and reports it, minimizes harm to others, acts independently and is accountable and transparent.
That is what a real news organization does.