Joyce Terhaar

From the Executive Editor: Ethics policy ready for a tuneup

Joyce Terhaar
Joyce Terhaar

Should a reporter disclose to readers that an interview was done via text, instead of in person or on the phone?

Does it make a difference if the conversation is a private one on Twitter? Or an email?

Can Bee journalists behave the same way as the general public – expressing opinion, being snarky – when they're on Twitter or Facebook, and blend their personal and professional lives?

Bee journalists tackled these questions and many more this month as part of an ongoing review of our newsroom ethics policy. Our policy, for instance, cautions reporters against using email for interviews but doesn't address numerous other common tools such as texting. And it isn't specific enough in how it guides journalist behavior on social media. Given the way communication is changing, it needs a tuneup.

Good journalists might disagree about story approach or tone or even where the line is drawn in an ethics policy. I've seen that in our ethics discussions, where debate has at times been lively. It's why I've had many newsroom voices weighing in on our tuneup, though I'll be protective of you – our readers – and The Bee's credibility as we make final decisions.

For Managing Editor Scott Lebar, the ethical line is drawn to protect our credibility, and to be responsible citizens.

"I have greater responsibility for determining what we do and how we do it because we're the only ones" making those decisions, Lebar said, pointing out that government officials have agencies such as the Fair Political Practices Commission to regulate behavior. "I don't have those rules. We self-police, and we do it to protect our credibility."

Capitol Bureau Chief Dan Smith enforces standards that protect transparency to readers, accountability for officials and our credibility.

"I don't think journalists should ever be offering their opinions on things their outlet covers – whether it be on social media, on yard signs or in public conversations," Smith said. "It's what we give up to have a front-row seat for so many things and the privilege of telling others about them."

Smith is also a stickler for transparency, insisting that reporters use the phrase "in a written statement" if a quote is from email or a text. (Full disclosure: All quotes used here except those from Lebar are from email follow-up to our ethics sessions.)

"Written statement" is a cue that the reporter did not have a back-and-forth exchange with a source, allowing more questions. Such statements might also be written by someone other than the named source, a common practice in politics and business.

For reporter Ed Fletcher, who covers Placer County, social media needs a more moderate approach. "The culture of Twitter favors genuine interaction. I say embrace it within limits."

"I believe it would be a mistake to tell newsroom employees they cannot comment on movies, food, art, sports or other aspects of the human experience outside of their coverage area," he said.

Reporters bring job reality to the ethics discussion: what it takes to reach a source, get an interview, find a document.

Some reporters firmly believe an interview via texting is more like a phone conversation, so it doesn't need to be disclosed.

"Scheduling telephone interviews isn't always realistic" for sources who move from one meeting to another all day, said Ryan Lillis, who covers the city of Sacramento. And unlike email, "when I'm interviewing (someone) over text I always do so using their personal cellphones" to ensure that he's getting a response from the right person.

So why not just tell the reader the interview was via texting? Lillis said that would just sound old-fashioned.

"Texting has become as common – if not more common – a form of communication for a lot of people as speaking over the telephone. I'm not worried about sources balking at talking with me over text if I make it clear in a story that they did so. I'm worried it will just look silly," Lillis said. He could find only two instances in the last decade in which The Bee attributed an interview to texting, both in sports stories.

Anyone with a son or daughter away at college knows this to be true: You can have a back-and-forth conversation via text. Yet sometimes texting is more like email; if you respond later, you can get help with a response.

All these scenarios speak to our need to talk through new guidelines for Bee staff. As we work our way through this process, I'll keep you apprised of the debate and our final decisions.

Reach Executive Editor Joyce Terhaar at (916) 321-1004. Follow her on Twitter @jterhaar.