Information gathering, accuracy, verification and judging credibility – the major topics of the first modules in this section – are the professional goals of the journalists. Accomplishing these goals cannot be done by any means necessary, however.
They must be accompanied by a standard of conduct that brings credit to the journalist personally and enhances the credibility of the news organization for which the journalist works. The way in which journalists conduct themselves and the attitude and demeanor they bring to their jobs is as important as the information they gather.
None of this means that journalists must be universally popular or everlasting lovable.
The product of their work, including the fact that they must sometimes tell uncomfortable truths, ensure that they will have opponents and even enemies. People will always want to keep information secret – information that should be made public – and they will not support efforts of journalists to reveal that information.
Sometimes, the public in general does not want information exposed because they perceive that it may reflects badly on society.
Given those pressures, journalists must not only act with the purest motives possible but must also observe the generally accepted rules of conduct for the profession.
The first tenet of that conduct is honesty. Journalists must be honest about who they are and what they are doing. (Recall that honesty was also at the top of the list of personal attributes described in the previous section of Digital Journalism, 1.5 Professional attributes <link>). In practical terms, this honesty means:
• Always revealing the fact that you are a journalist.
• Always telling sources what you are working on;
• Always informing sources that they might be quoted or that the information they give you might be used in an article.
In communicating with sources, reporters should say who they are at the beginning of the conversation, and they should explain what they are seeking and why. Journalists should seek consent from the sources in order to quote those sources or to use the information they give to the journalists. If the source does not give consent, the journalist should end the interview. (This does not mean that the journalist should stop seeking the information, however.)
In short, reporters should not use tricks or deception to get information.
Reports should not break the law. They should not steal. They should not trespass or break into an area where it is illegal for them to be.
A source will sometimes ask to remain anonymous or will promise information to the journalist only with the promise of anonymity. Journalists should not grant anonymity without careful consideration of the following points:
• Does the source really need to be anonymous?
• Using an anonymous source will likely hurt the credibility of the information and the credibility of the reporter.
• Is the news organization willing to support the reporter’s promise of anonymity for the source?
• The legal implications granting anonymity can be severe. Some reporters have gone to jail rather than go back on their words and reveal the source of the information to a prosecutor or judge. The reporter must ask, “Is this information worth going to jail for?”
Once a promise of anonymity is made, a reporter should not go back on his or her word.
One of the common images in television or movie depictions of reporters is that they are constantly sticking a microphone or a camera in the face of a bereaved or aggrieved person and asking, “How do you feel?”
In the real world, that rarely happens.
Reporters are human beings, too, and they are as reluctant as anyone else in approaching someone who has suffered a loss and talking with that person about the loss. Reporters understand that in such circumstances people are vulnerable and may be distrustful or easily upset.
Consequently, reporters learn to treat lightly, often showing great respect and deference to those in difficult situations. Those efforts can be rewarded. People suffering emotional pain or loss take some comfort in talking with a reporter about that loss because the reporter is train to maintain a professional demeanor and can serve as an anchor for that person.
But journalists have to remember they have a job to do and that their ultimate duty is to their news organization and to their audience. Consequently, they cannot normally accede to requests by sources to withhold information that they have acquired legitimately and professionally.
Reporters must respect the people they come in contact with, but they must also respect the audience that depends on them for honest, accurate information. Reporters must obtain that information in a way that, if it came to light, would enhance their standing and credibility.