Times Editor John Carroll distributed new ethics guidelines for the paper last night. They spell out when Times reporters may use unnamed sources (and the pitfalls), restate that staffers may not participate in partisan political activities or advocate causes, and require that staffers who want to write blogs in their off time get the approval of the paper and apply Times journalistic standards. Some highlights follow, plus a link to a copy of the guidelines sent to me by several staffers.
A fair-minded reader of Times news coverage should not be able to discern the private opinions of those who contributed to that coverage, or to infer that the newspaper is promoting any agenda. A crucial goal of our news and feature reporting – apart from editorials, columns, criticism and other content that is expressly opinionated – is to be nonideological. This is a tall order. It requires us to recognize our own biases and stand apart from them. It also requires us to examine the ideological environment in which we work, for the biases of our sources, our colleagues and our communities can distort our sense of objectivity...
People who will be shown in an adverse light in an article must be given a meaningful opportunity to defend themselves.
On anonymous sources:
Relying in print on unnamed sources should be a last resort...When we use anonymous sources, it should be to convey important information to our readers. We should not use such sources to publish material that is trivial, obvious or self-serving. Sources should never be permitted to use the shield of anonymity to voice speculation or to make ad hominem attacks. An unnamed source should have a compelling reason for insisting on anonymity, such as fear of retaliation, and stories should state those reasons when they are relevant. The reporter and editor must be satisfied that the source has a sound factual basis for his or her assertions. Some sources quoted anonymously might tend to exaggerate or overreach precisely because they will not be named...
In rare instances, sources may insist that the paper and the reporter resist subpoenas and judicial orders, if necessary, to protect their anonymity. Reporters should consult a masthead editor before entering into any such agreement. Even in the absence of such an agreement, the possibility exists that a prosecutor, grand jury or judge will demand to know a source’s identity, forcing the reporter to choose between unmasking the source and going to jail for contempt of court. Such situations are rare, and they should not deter us from investigating sensitive or contentious matters. Reporters should be extremely circumspect about how and where they store information that might identify an anonymous source. Many electronic records, including e-mail, can be subpoenaed from and retrieved by non-newsroom employees.
Promises to a source must be kept except under the most extraordinary circumstances. If a source, acting in bad faith, were to succeed in using the newspaper to spread misinformation, we would consider our promise of anonymity no longer binding. That said, we do not “burn” sources.
On conflicts of interest:
Staff members may not engage in political advocacy – as members of a campaign or an organization specifically concerned with political change. Nor may they contribute money to a partisan campaign or candidate. No staff member may run for or accept appointment to any public office.
Staff members should avoid public expressions or demonstrations of their political views – bumper stickers, lawn signs and the like.
While The Times does not seek to restrict staff members’ participation in civic life or journalistic organizations, they should be aware that outside affiliations and memberships may create real or apparent ethical conflicts. When those affiliations have even the slightest potential to damage the newspaper’s credibility, staff members should proceed with caution and take care to advise supervisors.
Some types of civic participation may be deemed inappropriate. An environmental writer, for instance, would be prohibited from affiliating with environmental organizations, a health writer from joining medical groups, a business editor from membership in certain trade or financial associations.
No matter how careful Times bloggers might be to distinguish their personal work from their professional affiliation with the paper, outsiders are likely to see them as intertwined. As a result, any staff member who seeks to create a personal blog must clear it with a supervisor; approval will be granted only if the proposed blog meets the paper’s journalistic standards. When approval is granted, staff members should take care not to write anything in their blogs that would not be acceptable in the newspaper. Staff members should observe the same principle when contributing to blogs other than their own.Here's the copy of the guidelines that was sent to me.