Independent or involved?

Independence has been an important journalism value for years and remains one of the four core principles of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.

However, in today’s rapidly changing media environment, many journalists and media organizations operate in situations that challenge this traditional notion of independence: sports fans blogging about their favorite teams, mommy bloggers whose coverage revolves around the lives of their children and families, activists covering issues they’re involved in, journalists supported by companies or non-profit organizations. Some people whose work involves acts of journalism don’t know what to call what they do: journalism, blogging, citizen journalism, brand journalism. This article is not intended to return to or resolve old arguments about whether bloggers are journalists or new discussions about boundaries in an increasingly murky area between traditional journalism and traditional public relations. The point is to encourage consideration of the role independence plays in your news organization, and how you protect integrity if independence is not a realistic value for your organization.

The SPJ Code of Ethics elaborates on independence mostly in terms of financial matters such as influence of advertisers and acceptance of free gifts. And those are notable issues your organization should address. But the value of independence plays out in other ways that get into people’s lives and even their families. Many news organizations forbid news employees from holding public office or placing campaign signs on their lawns or bumper stickers on their cars (an issue sometimes with family members who aren’t journalists and want to express their political views). Some journalists involved in political coverage refrain from voting, lest it force them to take a position that they try to avoid in their work. Even before much of the economic upheaval that has changed the media landscape, some journalists were asking whether vigorous protection of independence had led to aloofness from the community that was as damaging in its own way as the entanglements journalists sought to avoid.

Here we will encourage you to make a basic choice between whether your organization favors independence from, or involvement with, the community, people and institutions you cover. Then we will encourage consideration of specific issues that either decision raises.

Why declare your independence?

Traditional journalists see independence as the best way to maintain integrity. You need to be free of entanglements with the government and other powerful institutions of the community, so you can cover them without fear or favor.

Why embrace involvement?

The business models supporting traditional journalism are eroding, and digital tools make publishing easy for everyone. Therefore, people and organizations with more involvement in the communities and issues they cover are starting to practice journalism to increase coverage in areas where they have economic interests and personal passions. You may feel that your expertise in the area offsets any downside of your involvement. You may feel that your passion and involvement bring knowledge and other value that offset your lack of independence.

If your organization favors independence:

Financial considerations

Newspapers and television stations traditionally maintain (or at least claim to maintain) a figurative wall between news and advertising, sometimes likened to the U.S. Constitution’s wall of separation between church and state. This is harder to do in a smaller organization, especially in a one-person website where the same person may be covering news and selling ads, or when people sit right next to each other in a small office or the home office of a mom-and-pop operation. Whatever your situation, if you embrace independence as a core value, you need to make clear to your advertisers and your public that advertising buys only space or time to pitch a commercial message to your audience, not (“not” in italics) influence your editorial content. (See Advertising and news: Where’s the line?)

If your financial support comes in other forms, such as sponsorships, donations or grants, you similarly need to make clear that support does not buy editorial influence. (See Accepting money from donors and foundations)

Your size and structure might allow you to insulate journalists from the revenue-generating part of your operation. Whether you do that or not, written agreements with advertisers or other financial supporters should specify that the agreement doesn’t include influence. And employee handbooks or ethics codes — on both the sales and editorial sides of the operation — should clearly state that salespeople or fundraisers should not pass on to editorial employees requests from funders relating to content (except for corrections of factual errors).

One more matter of independence is acceptance of free gifts. An organization deciding on independence is likely to take a strong position against allowing staff members to accept gifts or free travel. (See Gifts, free travel and other perks)

Personal involvement

An organization that embraces independence as a value is likely to restrict the personal involvement of staff members in the community. These restrictions may inhibit staff members in various ways:

If your organization favors (or allows) involvement:

 If you’re writing about a personal passion

Many journalists today build a part-time or full-time venture with coverage, commentary, personal memoir and personal reflection on a topic of intense personal interest, such as a favorite sports team, parenthood, a health experience or a hobby. You don’t want to maintain any pretense of independence in these cases. Your passion will be evident in your work, and your personal experience is the basis for the expertise you offer in the topic. You have no prohibition about involvement because the involvement drives the content. But you should take care to disclose your connections, so your readers or viewers understand your perspective. You should also adhere to the fundamental principles in the first section of this site; involvement in a topic is no excuse for deceiving your readers or failing to publish corrections.

Financial issues

Readers and viewers who respect your passions and opinions despite (or perhaps because of) strong and admitted personal biases might respond completely differently to financial conflicts. Whether you rely on advertising, subscriptions, donations, events or some combination, you should consider some sort of statement ensuring that support does not buy influence of your editorial content.

Also consider whether acceptance of freebies will endanger your credibility. If you accept free products, tickets, etc. on the rationale that you could not afford to review the products or events if you had to pay for them, consider how to protect your integrity, including measures such as disclosing your acceptance of the freebies and/or donation of products to charity (or to readers/viewers) after you’ve reviewed them. Similarly, you might want to disclose how you support community organizations through memberships, purchases or donations. (See Gifts, free travel and other perks)

If your organization combines activism and journalism

From neighborhood activists covering hyperlocal news to individuals and organizations writing about issues such as the environment, crime and social issues, niche organizations are providing news and commentary in areas of public life where they are directly involved. These might be traditional activist organizations deciding to provide journalism to fill a void or to provide influence. They might be startup organizations focused on providing journalism but choosing some level of involvement over traditional independence.

The nature of the news organization will dictate whether you make any effort to separate the journalism from the sources of funding. For instance, if an organization decides to produce a newsletter or blog from its budget, separation is hard to achieve and perhaps pointless to pretend you could achieve. You just try to provide good journalism and acknowledge that you’re funded by member dues or contributors or whatever the source is. If, however, some activists launch their own news operation, they might want to consider some of the issues discussed elsewhere about protecting editorial content from influence by funders.

Disclosure may be most important for these news operations. For instance, if you live in the neighborhood but avoid membership or leadership in neighborhood groups, that’s a different perspective from being the president of the home-owners association.

If you’re funded by an interested organization

Beyond these issues of activism and personal passion, some companies and non-profit organizations are starting newsrooms to cover the topical fields where they operate. These ventures operate in a new space between traditional journalism and public relations. (See Journalism funded by interested organizations)

Independence and impartiality are related but separate

These two issues will often go together, and many organizations will decide on point-of-view and involvement, or independence and impartiality. But you should decide each point separately. It’s important to note here that an organization can choose the point-of-view approach to journalism and still choose independence over involvement. For instance, you could decide you’re going to cover climate-change issues and transparently favor measures to fight climate change. But you still could decide that staff members should not belong to environmental groups, donate to environmental causes or support political candidates. Despite your acknowledged position on the issue, you believe independence leaves you in a better position to evaluate the effectiveness of environmental groups, politicians, etc.

The ethical choices for deciding between independence and involvement are in the related post “What is the Nature of Your Journalism?

This essay was written by Steve Buttry of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University.