By Shari Phiel
Like many people, there are generally two times each year when I like to be more introspective, reflecting upon past accomplishments, disappointments and future plans and dreams – my birthday and the start of a new year. With the start of 2009, I thought not only about my own past and future, but the Berthoud Recorder’s as well.
Last year brought with it several controversial stories along with other items, such as letters to the editor, special columns and press releases that tested and challenged our ethics as well as what should be included in a newspaper and what shouldn’t – whether we like it or not. All of which lead to several discussions about the role of the newspaper in a community.
Since the advent of the Internet, newspapers and other print media have changed dramatically. So too has the role of the community newspaper. At the Recorder, we realize that most Berthoud residents get their information about world, national and state news from broadcast television stations, cable news programs and the Internet. However, readers must still turn to their local paper for information on local news, community events and regional happenings in Berthoud and even Larimer and Weld counties. We may not always like or agree with the information published in our paper, but we have a responsibility to accurately report the news as well as reflect the development and changes of our community.
Our role is to not only report the news but to also bring the community together, to engage our readers in discussion and thought and to motivate readers to participate in the community. As such, many of our staff members are actively involved in local volunteer organizations, boards and commissions.
When it does come to reporting the news, we use a well-defined code of ethics so that we fairly, accurately and truthfully report that news. While some may argue that many journalists don’t have any ethics, the Berthoud Recorder’s management, editorial staff and writers voluntarily adheres to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.
The first point of the SPJ’s code is to seek the truth and report it. “Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.” This means making sure information is accurate and undistorted and sources are identified whenever possible.
The second code is to minimize harm. As journalists, we strive to respect to all news sources and subjects as well as other newspaper professionals. But we do realize that when gathering and reporting on news stories, the information presented can be harmful or hurtful to those involved. While we have an obligation to provide factual information to the public, we will not sensationalize a story or pander to “lurid curiosity.”
Minimizing harm also means we carefully consider when to release the names of minors involved in stories, withhold from naming criminal suspects until charges have been filed, and balance the public’s right to know against an individual’s right to privacy.
The third code of ethics from the SPJ is to act independently, meaning journalists should “be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.” Journalists, reporters and writers should avoid any conflict of interest – whether that conflict is real or just perceived. We can never accept gifts, favors or special treatment; we must beware of paying sources for information and avoid providing preferential treatment to advertisers or special parties.
By avoiding these types of conflicts, we are able to adhere to the fourth code of ethics – be accountable. We are, and should always be, accountable to our readers. This means we clarify or further explain new stories if needed, encourage the public to discuss stories with us, challenge our information, admit and correct mistakes as soon as possible and encourage readers to share and discuss any grievances.
As with any year in news, 2009 will likely bring us stories that are uplifting, stories that challenge us to be better journalists, stories that challenge us to be better people, stories we will disagree with and stories our readers will disagree with. In the end though, we hope our readers will always recognize and value the accuracy, fairness, scope and honesty we strive to bring to our readers and the community.