Policies on Editorial Ethics, Independence and Transparency
Searchlight New Mexico is an independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan news organization that strives to uphold high standards of fairness and accuracy. Searchlight follows the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics adopted by thousands of journalists around the world. That code is reprinted below.
As a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, Searchlight New Mexico pledges to be transparent about the funding of its news operations and maintain editorial independence from all revenue sources to ensure news judgments are made in the interest of the communities they serve as journalists.
Editorial Independence Policy
Searchlight subscribes to standards of editorial independence adopted by the Institute for Nonprofit News:
Our organization retains full authority over editorial content to protect the best journalistic and business interests of our organization. We maintain a firewall between news coverage decisions and sources of all revenue. Acceptance of financial support does not constitute implied or actual endorsement of donors or their products, services or opinions.
We accept gifts, grants and sponsorships from individuals and organizations for the general support of our activities, but our news judgments are made independently and not on the basis of donor support.
Our organization may consider donations to support the coverage of particular topics, but our organization maintains editorial control of the coverage. We will cede no right of review or influence of editorial content, nor of unauthorized distribution of editorial content.
Donor Transparency Policy
The officers, staff members and volunteers of Searchlight New Mexico are committed to transparency in every aspect of funding our organization.
Accepting financial support does not mean we endorse donors or their products, services or opinions.
We accept gifts, grants and sponsorships from individuals, organizations and foundations to help with our general operations, coverage of specific topics, and special projects. Our news judgments are made independently – not based on or influenced by donors. We do not give supporters the rights to assign, review or edit content.
To the degree it is practical, we will make public all donors, with special care to make public all donors who give $5,000 or more per year. As a nonprofit, we will avoid accepting donations from anonymous sources, and we will not accept donations from government entities, political parties, elected officials or candidates actively seeking public office. We will not accept donations from sources who, as deemed by the Searchlight New Mexico Board of Directors, present a conflict of interest with our work or compromise our independence.
Anonymous Sourcing Policy
Just as Searchlight demands transparency from government, we are committed to maintaining transparency for our readers and the public. That means we avoid using anonymous sources except in unusual and specific circumstances, as outlined here.
- We may choose to give anonymity to sources who could face retaliation or otherwise be endangered by the publication of their names.
- Reporters must make certain that an anonymous source is reliable and in a position to have direct knowledge of the information being provided. Anonymity is never granted to someone for expressing an opinion or indulging in speculation.
- Reporters must always get approval from their editor before granting anonymity to a source who is quoted in a story. The editor must know the identity of the source and is obligated, like the reporter, to keep the source’s identity confidential.
- Anyone talking to a Searchlight reporter in an official capacity (government, corporate, etc.) does so on the record by default. This means that what they say will be quoted and attributed by name. Officials cannot hide behind a curtain of anonymity.
- If the reporter is taking notes in front of the source — or tells the source that the conversation is being recorded — it is implicit that all remarks are on the record. If you feel that the interviewee does not understand this protocol, it is up to you as the reporter to explicitly say, “I’m taking notes, I’m recording this…Please spell your name before we get going.”
- If the source wants to set conditions, these should be negotiated at the start of the interview. If any information is given off the record, the reporter should circle back at the end of the interview and attempt to get all or part of the information on the record.
- Sources sometimes ask for an interview “off-the-record,” or “on background,” without truly understanding what the term means. To avoid confusion, establish your parameters in “jargon-free plain English” at the start of the interview: Can Searchlight quote the source by name? Can we use the information if we leave out the source’s name? Can we at least describe the source’s job?
On the record: Everything is available for publication and can be attributed to the source.
Off the record: Information that can’t be used – even without attribution.
On background: Information that can be published, but only under conditions that you’ve negotiated beforehand with the source. Interviewing on background can help bring you up to speed in the early stages of reporting, or when exploring a subject.For our purposes, it allows sources to feel like they can speak freely.
Deep background: The information can be used, but without attribution. The source does not want to be identified in any way, even on condition of anonymity. This is the kind of information that might be useful early on in your reporting, to provide understanding and context on a subject.
Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics
Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.
The Society declares these four principles as the foundation of ethical journalism and encourages their use in its practice by all people in all media.
Seek Truth and Report It
Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
- Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it. Use original sources whenever possible.
- Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.
- Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.
- Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story.
- Be cautious when making promises, but keep the promises they make.
- Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.
- Consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.
- Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.
- Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.
- Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless.
- Support the open and civil exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.
- Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government. Seek to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open, and that public records are open to all.
- Provide access to source material when it is relevant and appropriate.
- Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices we seldom hear.
- Avoid stereotyping. Journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting.
- Label advocacy and commentary.
- Never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual information. Clearly label illustrations and re-enactments.
- Never plagiarize. Always attribute.
Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.
- Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.
- Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.
- Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.
- Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.
- Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.
- Balance a suspect’s right to a fair trial with the public’s right to know. Consider the implications of identifying criminal suspects before they face legal charges.
- Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate.
The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.
- Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
- Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.
- Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; do not pay for access to news. Identify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not.
- Deny favored treatment to advertisers, donors or any other special interests, and resist internal and external pressure to influence coverage.
- Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two. Prominently label sponsored content.
Be Accountable and Transparent
Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.
- Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.
- Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness.
- Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.
- Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations.
- Abide by the same high standards they expect of others.
The SPJ Code of Ethics is a statement of abiding principles supported by additional explanations and position papers that address changing journalistic practices. It is not a set of rules, rather a guide that encourages all who engage in journalism to take responsibility for the information they provide, regardless of medium. The code should be read as a whole; individual principles should not be taken out of context. It is not, nor can it be under the First Amendment, legally enforceable.
Sigma Delta Chi’s first Code of Ethics was borrowed from the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1926. In 1973, Sigma Delta Chi wrote its own code, which was revised in 1984, 1987, 1996 and 2014.