Ethics Guide

The Center for Investigative Reporting believes its journalists and employees should uphold the highest standards of ethics, fairness and honesty. Integrity is the cornerstone of the organization. These guidelines and policies are meant for newsroom staff but extend to contractors and freelancers working on journalistic projects for CIR. CIR also has a complementary set of guidelines covering all employees, including non-newsroom personnel. Remember these guidelines are just that – guidelines. We have written them to help our staff work through challenging circumstances. 
Whenever you are faced with an ethical problem, we urge you to consult our guidelines, never assume anything and always use common sense. If you can’t find answers in our guidelines and you have any doubt about how to proceed, consult your supervisor before taking action. CIR follows guidelines outlined by the Society of Professional Journalists and its mission of “seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.” Our content must be accurate, thorough, complete and fair – on all platforms.
Our journalists will refrain from quoting or attributing information to anonymous sources. The editorial director may approve rare exceptions to this rule if the information is deemed to be of high news value and importance – and if all other means to get the information on the record have been exhausted. But even before the use of an anonymous source reaches the editorial director, it should be thoroughly discussed as soon as is practical with an assigning editor.
When dealing with sources, always question motives before promising anonymity. Avoid using anonymous sources to express negative opinions or make negative charges about an individual or organization. In the rare cases in which anonymous sources are approved by the editorial director, we will tell readers or viewers why anonymity was granted in the story, accompanying sidebar or blog post. Identify to the fullest extent possible the nature of the source, including qualifications and biases that can aid the reader in determining the validity of the information.
You should consult first with your assigning editor before granting a blanket promise of confidentiality to any source.
A senior editor must be notified as to the identity of any anonymous or confidential sources. Sources, meanwhile, should be aware that their identity will be shared with a senior editor, who will also protect their confidentiality.
CIR journalists should take great care when aggregating stories from other news sources. Verbatim language must be in quotation marks and properly attributed and linked to the source. Longer excerpts must be set off in block quotes and linked to the source. Aggregated content should be short – a small percentage of the actual article. In most cases, that means no more than a single paragraph of excerpted material and an extremely limited amount of rewritten text. When paraphrasing aggregated material, attribution and linking to the original material is essential.
On joint reporting projects, we count on the vested newsroom staff to resolve questions of bylines and credits. When there is a disagreement, editors will decide these issues. In general, the byline goes to the person or people who did significant work on the article. In most cases, a tagline mentions any contributor who does not appear in the byline. We must clearly credit all sources of photos, graphics, informational breakout text, and Web and TV “frame grabs.”
We take all challenges to the integrity of our news reports seriously. If reporters or producers become aware of disputed facts before publication or broadcast, senior-level editors should be notified as soon as possible. Challenges to published or broadcasted facts should be brought to the attention of editors immediately and shared with the editorial director, copy chief and executive director. Senior-level editors should also notify legal counsel to fact challenges or other issues related to our content. If legal counsel representing a subject of a story contacts anyone at CIR, we should notify supervising editors and our legal counsel immediately. CIR legal counsel should be notified by senior editors of all demands for retraction or any challenge to our accuracy. California law requires a response to a demand for retraction within a specific period. So, any such demand must be handled expeditiously. That same sense of urgency will apply to any fact challenges. Editors will work with reporters to prepare a written response to any points raised. This written response is for internal purposes only and will be used to help editors and/or our legal counsel prepare a formal response if warranted. When challenges to our facts or retraction demands are received, it’s prudent to refrain from any interaction with sources or attorneys representing the aggrieved parties. 
A supervisor must approve conference travel or honoraria – especially if a conference organizer is paying part of the bill or sponsoring an event. Travel reimbursement from journalistic trade groups, such as the Online News Association or Investigative Reporters and Editors, and others is generally acceptable but still needs a supervisor’s approval. We do not accept travel reimbursement to attend conferences sponsored by government entities or interest groups.
Newsroom staffers or assigned freelancers and contractors should not work on stories, projects or initiatives in which they have a personal connection, vested interest or financial interest. We ask that staffers, contractors and freelancers exercise an abundance of caution in these matters. Even a perceived conflict could damage our credibility. This policy extends to the involvement and activities of a business partner, spouse or domestic partner. If a conflict exists, you should disclose it immediately to your supervisor. If there are any changes in the status that may determine the conflict or potential conflict, please notify your supervisor or assigning editor. Avoid secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity. Our journalists should avoid investments in companies or industries they regularly cover. If your spouse or significant other is involved in activities that could raise potential conflicts, we would urge you not to discuss any CIR work matters that might affect your spouse or partner’s activities. This would include stories under development that might involve a spouse or partner, or their associates or business entities, as a potential news source.
Any secondary employment by staff should be cleared first with your supervisor.
We are committed to correcting or clarifying any errors in a prompt and open manner. All errors in published material must be reported to a supervisor immediately. We encourage feedback from the public and take any requests for clarification or correction seriously. Your editors should be notified when these public concerns arise. See the CIR Editorial Guide for further instructions.
Any information taken from other published or broadcast sources should receive credit within the body of the story. Reporters and editors also should be aware of previously published/broadcast work on the same subject and give those news organizations credit if they have broken new ground or published exclusive material before any others.
Datelines identify for readers of text articles where the main news event occurred. Be careful never to leave the impression on a bylined story that the reporter traveled somewhere when he or she did not. Further, if the place the action occurred is not significant to the overall story, then a dateline should not be used.
We have no sacred cows. We will not shy away from stories that we deem newsworthy. In the name of transparency, when we produce stories that involve donors to CIR or board members, we will always disclose the relationship. When these situations arise, please notify your editor. To keep a firewall between development and editorial staff, our newsroom personnel should use common sense when engaging in a dialogue with our funders, foundations and major donors. If there is any confusion about this, please consult with the editorial director or executive director.
All sources will be treated with courtesy and respect in the newsgathering process. CIR staff and representatives will act professionally at all times in dealing with sources, even hostile and recalcitrant ones. Subjects of our stories should have many opportunities to respond to our findings and facts. Whenever practical, multiple attempts should be made to contact any sources named in our stories or cast in a negative light. Reporters and editors should determine what is appropriate in terms of notice and attempts to obtain comment or response. As a rule, multiple efforts should be made to reach main subjects in our stories – regardless of the format or platform.
Noncompetitive freelance work or side projects are acceptable as long they do not conflict with our mission and our work. Run these opportunities by a supervisor before accepting any outside assignments or agreeing to any outside commitments. If approval is granted, these stories will be produced outside of work on your own time.
CIR employees or representatives will under no circumstance accept gifts from sources or potential news sources. Holiday baskets from news sources should be turned over to your supervisor/assigning editor for distribution to charity. Items for review, such as DVDs, CDs, books and videos, can be accepted for evaluation by staff as to their news value. Staff members are allowed to use those items necessary for doing their jobs, including reference books used on an ongoing basis. All other items are to be turned over to your supervisor for disposal. Gift bags that include more expensive items, such as briefcases or memorabilia, should not be accepted. A gratuity, such as a pen, mug, paperweight or certificate, given to a newsroom associate for being a guest speaker at a community meeting or service club can be accepted, as long as it is a token of appreciation given to every speaker. Our general rule in these cases is that we should not accept any item valued at $25 or more. But the safer policy is to return or reject any such overture or gifts. See ticket policy below.
As outlined by the Society of Professional Journalists, reporters should strive to minimize harm. Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects. Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief. Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance. Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy. Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
Do not identify juvenile suspects unless they have been charged as adults or unless you receive approval from a senior editor. We also will not identify victims of sex crimes without approval from a senior editor. Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges. Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.
Identification of a minor in any story produced by CIR should be cleared with an assignment editor. In quoting minors, we should ensure that we have obtained parental consent or the consent of a legal guardian whenever possible – so that minor subjects are fully aware of the ramifications of speaking on the record in the media.
It’s important to represent CIR professionally at all times. Please refrain from taking a position on stories or issues. When interviewed on TV or radio, do not take sides or express opinions. Play it straight. Be neutral. Refrain from taking any positions on politics or issues that may compromise our ability to be seen as fair and objective. In general, only senior managers at CIR should speak about CIR’s internal policies with outside media. Reporters may be asked by a supervisor to be interviewed by outside media. When a request comes directly to a reporter or staffer, please check with a supervisor before agreeing to be interviewed. In some rare cases, exceptions to this may be granted in the interest of time. But in general, editors/supervisors should be alerted about all media requests in advance. We encourage our reporters to be accessible and open, but we should weigh the platform and venue carefully before agreeing to appear on air.
Sometimes, a meal or refreshments are included with your admission to an event, and sometimes it would seem rude to refuse to eat with a group that has invited you to attend. It is not against our ethics to eat in these situations. You should make a good-faith effort to pay the proportionate cost of your meal, using common sense. In the case of source meetings over food or refreshments, we generally expect and encourage you to pay your own way. Again, common sense should guide you. For example, if you have a longtime source and it is your practice to alternate picking up the check at lunch, that's fine. We strongly encourage CIR to pay for the first meal in such cases. Allowing a source to buy you a cup of coffee is OK; an expensive dinner is not OK.
Avoid drinking alcoholic beverages when on CIR business and during work hours unless it’s a sanctioned CIR social event where alcohol is served. Misuse of alcohol at a CIR-sponsored or CIR-approved event is prohibited. In practice, this means you may have a drink with a source after work. However, if you consume alcohol, it would be a policy violation to return to work.
Under no circumstances will CIR staff or assigned freelancers and contractors mislead sources, lie, cheat, steal or engage in any other immoral, unethical or illegal behavior in the pursuit of a story. We expect our staff to exercise sound judgment at all times. We identify ourselves upfront as journalists with CIR or CIR brands. We do not use hidden cameras or microphones, go undercover or engage in any other news-gathering tactic that might be construed as misleading without first discussing the ramifications and consequences with editors. (Please remember that California law does not allow conversations or interviews to be tape recorded -- video or audio -- without the subject’s consent. The rule does not apply in a public setting.) Both the editorial director and executive director must sign off on any unconventional reporting methods and approaches.
Off the record, background, deep background – it all might mean different things to different people. When engaging in off-the-record interviews, make sure to spell out clearly the ground rules so there is no misunderstanding about how information may be used.
Under no circumstances will CIR journalists or assigned freelancers/contractors steal material from other sources. All outside work must be properly credited and clearly noted. This includes any material on the Internet. Plagiarism is a serious offense, and violators will be subject to discipline up to and including termination. CIR’s guidelines to avoid plagiarism are adapted from writings of the faculty of the Poynter Institute.
While you are gathering information, make sure to carefully note your sources, and if you copy something verbatim into your story, make sure to put it in quotation marks and properly attribute the source. If you paraphrase, even as you rewrite it into your own voice, lean toward attribution. Don't copy or cut and paste information, including text, pictures and graphics, from websites and press releases into your report. Take care when using information from our archives.
Fabrication – to invent details, people and stories – also violates all of our principles. Readers must be confident that we are not making up anything. Fabrication is a serious offense, and violators will be subject to discipline up to and including termination. This policy also bans the use of “composite” characters, or creating details that we did not observe or verify from a source who was in a position to know. In those special cases in which we are reconstructing events or writing special narratives, have conversations about the proper way to let readers know how we know what we wrote is accurate. This will require an explanatory note identifying our sources and perhaps attributing specific pieces of information to specific sources, akin to footnoting.
CIR employees do not participate in political causes. This applies to all employees. We refrain from signing petitions or making campaign contributions to any political or activist causes. We also should exercise care to avoid signing any document disclosing our personal political affiliations or preferences. We attend political events, rallies or speeches only in our official capacity as journalists when assigned by a supervising editor. We do not participate in marches, protests or other events tied to political or activist causes. Charitable contributions are not governed by this policy. But we ask that all employees exercise common sense and good judgment when making charitable contributions to organizations with clear political agendas. 
All of us have lives. And many of us can be deeply affected or touched by local policies in our communities – especially those affecting the care or education of our children. Nevertheless, we ask that employees refrain from taking an activist role in community activities – speaking, marching, protesting or organizing. That does not rule out attending meetings or asking questions at a meeting in an informational capacity. Please notify your supervisor immediately if you wish to seek any further exception to this policy. In cases in which exceptions are granted, it would preclude the employee from working on any related story, topic or initiative.
We will refrain from using profanity or slurs in quoted material in our stories. The editorial director may approve rare exceptions to this rule if the use is deemed to be of high news value and relevance to the story. However, it is generally better to paraphrase the material to avoid using offensive language. Before the use of profanity or a slur reaches the editorial director, it should be thoroughly discussed with an assigning editor.
Everything on your social media accounts (even personal accounts) has the potential to affect your reputation and, by extension, the perception of credibility of CIR’s nonpartisan newsroom. Be smart. Be professional. Exercise good judgment on your social media sites. All issues brought up in the larger CIR ethics guidelines apply to social media as well.
While social media works best when you participate, remember to maintain an appropriate tone. Avoid loaded, political, obnoxious, profane, disdainful or hurtful language or personal attacks in your activity. Treat posts on social media as you would a conversation at a cocktail party: There are some issues about which you should not express an opinion. This should carry over to our tweets; to Instagram, Google+, Tumblr and Facebook posts; and to any other social media.
Even if you use social networking for personal purposes only, remember that anything you post might be shared or show up publicly. Do not post information that could reflect poorly on your professional role at CIR. Even information on social media accounts set up as private can get out into the public and be used to discredit you and/or CIR. As an employee of CIR, you are effectively a public figure. Be careful of “friending” sources or exchanging information on social media, especially if you wish them to be confidential. Twitter has surrendered private direct messages during legal proceedings. Be careful what information you exchange on any platform.
You should not list your political affiliation or any other affiliations that might undermine our credibility. Be aware that when you follow or like a political or other partisan organization – and do not follow the opposing side – you could be seen as having a bias.
Your public profiles should identify you as a journalist or that you work for The Center for Investigative Reporting. When you interact with users on a social media platform for a story or to gather sources, make sure that all parties involved are aware of your identity and motives for contacting them.
Maintain CIR’s journalistic standards when posting or sharing news you distribute on social media. While social media can be a great way to report breaking news, you should feel secure that information you are broadcasting comes from credible sources. Treat it as you would sourcing for CIR stories. Use extreme caution during breaking news events. Also be aware of what you retweet. To avoid misconceptions, you may want to add a note of explanation. For example, if you retweet a politician, add a note such as, "New from (politician)," or something to convey that you are providing this as a service to your followers.
Not all photos found on social media may be reused freely. Source the image back to the original owner and/or copyright holder and get permission before using it on CIR platforms. Confirm crediting and find out if any payment is required for use.
From time to time, we may be drawn into stories we cover. As an example, one of our reporters was contacted by an outside investigator looking into allegations of wrongdoing raised by our journalism. An attempt was made to draw in our reporter as a witness. If you are ever contacted by outside legal counsel or investigators, notify your supervisor or assigning editor immediately and refrain from answering any questions or making any comment until advised by our legal counsel.
No staff member will use his or her position to seek or accept tickets or passes – no matter the face value – made available in advance of general public sales, at a reduced price or free. We do not allow CIR employees to use their positions to personal advantage. No staff member will seek or accept free admission offered to amusements parks, sporting events or other activities from the organizations, their representatives or any outside sources that we cover. This does not preclude us from accepting tickets or gifts passed on by friends who are not news sources. 
We never overreach in our storytelling. When appropriate, we should not hesitate to disclose what we don’t know about a specific story we’re reporting. When facing difficult choices, we will attempt to make our decision-making process clear to the public. We disclose any relationships with partners or funders that might appear to influence our coverage. Whenever practical, we will strive to explain to readers and our audience the process of building our stories and provide raw data and documentation for public consumption.
All reporting-related travel expenses will be paid by CIR because we value our independence. We do not accept free travel or accommodations. We also will not knowingly use freelance pieces for which the author accepted special consideration, as in a junket. No newsroom associate is permitted to use his or her position in an effort to obtain preferred treatment, as such actions bring our integrity into question.
Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information, except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story. A supervisor and our legal counsel must be consulted and grant approval before engaging in any undercover work.
Our credibility is built on honest, accurate, fair and thorough journalism. We take great care to verify our work. Reporters are responsible for confirming all facts and for footnoting their stories. Editors, producers and copy editors check our staff-generated content and must take care in generating headlines, touts, captions and any other additional content to ensure that we accurately capture and reflect the essence of the story package.
CIR staffers and assigned freelancers and contractors do not pay for information from sources under any circumstances.
CIR editors are allowed to improve the technical quality of a photograph and ensure reproduction comes as close as possible to what the photographers saw. Discussions with management are not required for dodging and burning, color and tonal balancing, electronic sharpening, spotting to eliminate dust, or changing resolution to accommodate size. Never insert, move or remove content, including gestures, nudity or other cultural elements that may be deemed offensive or unattractive. If a photo cannot be cropped, look for another image.  
Do not extend backgrounds of news images. Do not add any elements to a photo through Photoshop or other means. We do not stage or re-enact photos. The exception would be a photograph that is clearly a portrait. Illustrations should not represent reality; they need to be identified as photo illustrations and clearly be distinct enough so as not to mislead readers. Discussions with editors are required when altering or combining photographs and artwork.
CIR video/audio producers and editors are allowed to improve and enhance the technical quality of footage and accompanying sound to achieve high production values.  Editors also may intercut B-roll footage that helps illustrate a story, so long as it is generic and does not misrepresent an actual location. For example, shots of iconic federal or state government buildings are allowed if they are sites that suggest government decision-making or power. A specific government agency identified in narration must be the actual site. The same applies to individuals in crowd shots in public places or generic shots of police officers, soldiers, workers, etc. If narration specifically describes problematic behaviors (e.g., child abuse, drug use), individuals in generic shots or scenes should not be identifiable. 
Video/audio producers and editors are not allowed to alter images, stage events or stage scenes to represent reality. The use of evocative images, sounds or scenes – such as shots of vehicle wheels, hood ornaments, hands counting money, gunshot sounds, etc. – must have the approval of senior editorial staff. The use of music should be subtle and not manipulate the emotions of the viewer. Again, senior editors always should be consulted and sign off.
In terms of radio production, sounds used to create nonfiction dramatizations that were not captured in real time should be clearly identified to the listeners as such and require discussion and approval with senior editorial leadership. An example would be the use of helicopter sounds to evoke a historical situation in which no actual sound recording exists.   
Use of hidden cameras or microphones cannot happen without senior staff and legal counsel review and approval. The standard for the decision must be made only at the highest level of reporting in the public interest, when there is no other way to document egregious behavior.
A decision to film or record an "ambush" interview requires prior approval to show that the producers have exhausted other avenues of getting a subject to agree to an interview. 
Overall, the production teams should be able to consult with senior editors about exceptions that they think should be considered because of special circumstances. The senior editorial staff should be available and open to discussing these situations in a timely fashion.