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Rules of the Road: Navigating the New Ethics of Local Journalism

Publication Date:
July 20, 2011

Jan Schaffer

Formats Available:
hard copy, pdf

What people are saying:

“The first consideration of the contributors is always: What impact will my decision have on the community? … There’s no “them” and “us” in the new newsroom.”

Tom Grubisich | Street Fight Magazine

“…Offers encouraging and reassuring signs that as the torch of local journalism is being passed, the flame of at least ethical aspiration remains strong.”

Ed Wasserman | Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics, Washington

With journalism entrepreneurs launching local news startups at a rapid pace, the local news landscape is evolving ­– and so are the rules of the road guiding ethical decisions.

Where a bright ethical line once separated a newsroom from its business operations, one person now often wears multiple hats, as editor, business manager and grants writer. Site publishers navigate new kinds of critical decisions daily. This guide examines a number of them.  You can click to any topic in any order.  Or, you can cruise through the Table of Contents.

On every page you’ll find a box that says, “Share your story.” We invite you to weigh in with an ethical problem you faced – and your solution.  Your participation will help inform a work in progress.

Foreword, by Jan Schaffer

When I commissioned “Rules of the Road,” I knew that entrepreneurial news startups were confronting entirely new ethical dilemmas.  Our grantees emailed thorny questions, our panelists chronicled hard decisions, and we watched as site founders tiptoed through difficult decisions involving sustainability, privacy and participation.

The truth is, standard journalistic Codes of Ethics don’t adequately address some of the challenges news startups are facing as they work in communities comprised of readers, donors, advertisers and competitors. You’ll see nothing in this booklet, for instance, about plagiarism, staging news events, or Photoshopping images.

Instead, ethical judgments are arising serendipitously, generally informed by an ethos to do less harm. These “Rules of the Road” are very much a work in progress, shaped by a news landscape in which:

  • The threshold for news is lower.  Misdemeanors, not just felonies, constitute news.
  • Stories unravel in real time. Editors post updates as they come in rather than wait for a fully baked story.
  • “Google juice” makes micro news have a macro afterlife.
  • Ethical decisions are as open to community feedback as the stories themselves.
  • Attachment to the community is valued more than dispassionate detachment.

The good news is that the internal compasses of new site founders are working well. There is a notable lack of arrogance. Indeed, many site founders actually draw more stringent rules for behavior than traditional news organizations do. Many, for instance, insist on moderating comments before publication rather than allow any uncivil discourse to pepper their sites.  All wrestle with competitive pressures over police-blotter reports, fully knowing that an arrest does not a conviction make.

Site editors interviewed have generously shared early mistakes that informed later policies.

Scott Rosenberg did an excellent job of distilling key takeaways. But they are not hard and fast rules. They are intended to help startup news sites chart a responsible course.  We invite you to participate in the conversation. On every page you can add your problem and solution.

We especially thank the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, which made this guide possible.

Jan Schaffer
J-Lab Executive Director

Download the report >>

Read the press release>> 


Rules of the Road: Navigating the New Ethics of Local Journalism was reported and written by Scott Rosenberg and edited by Andrew Pergam and Jan Schaffer.  It was produced online by Anna Tauzin, Lisa Rowan and Emily Harwood. It was designed by Rachel Clark Creative.  Read more about the contributors.

Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation logo

It was funded by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Next: Introduction >>

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