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Policy paper on editorial independence

"Problems arise when editors publish material that offends powerful individuals or groups, but that’s exactly why editorial independence is needed. Journals should be on the side of the powerless not the powerful, the governed not the governors. If readers once hear that important, relevant, and well argued articles are being suppressed or that articles are published simply to fulfill hidden political agendas, then the credibility of the publication collapses — and everybody loses.”

British Medical Journal, 2004

Preamble

In recent years, the credibility of print, broadcast and online journalists has been eroded by frequent accounts of news stories spiked or killed because of pressure from advertisers or from owners wielding their personal political views. That has left the impression among reporters and citizens alike that there exists a quiet assault on the ability of journalists to give a fair account of all sides of an issue, without meddling from advertisers or owners.

The firm separation between a news outlet’s editorial  and business functions is critical in maintaining the independence of journalists. A free press that is trusted and respected by citizens as fair-minded and untainted by the personal whims of owners or the corporate interests of advertisers is paramount in a democracy. It’s also critical to the long-term financial viability of a newspaper or broadcast outlet. If readers and viewers lose faith in a news outlet’s autonomy, they will abandon it.

1. General Guidelines

1a — The personal or political views of the owner or publisher should not interfere with day-to-day news content or the individual opinions of columnists. That includes decisions about what to cover, how to cover it and where to place the story in a newspaper, magazine or broadcast news program. Only reporters and editors should make those decisions. It’s understood that the owner or publisher is responsible for the overall content and that they can suggest story ideas or pass on views, but they should not assign or determine the content or tone of a story. At all times, the owner or publisher should have an arms-length relationship to the editorial function.

1b — To further define editorial responsibility, it is useful to provide clarity around the function of the publication or broadcast news program through a succinct mission statement that accurately describes the aims, values and overall plans of the publication or program.

1c — In the event of a conflict between the editorial and business functions, it is necessary to have an oversight mechanism. This could take the form of a memorandum of understanding that clearly defines the roles and responsibilities of each group, an ombudsman such as those found at the CBC or The Toronto Star or an editorial board or oversight committee such as the one at the Canadian Medical Association Journal.  It could also include an advocacy committee made up of readers or members of the public.

1d — The CAJ’s Statement of Principles and Ethics has guided this policy paper. Special mind should be paid to the responsibility of a reporter to avoid giving favoured treatment to advertisers and to disclose any conflicts of interest, such as free travel junkets.

1e — Similarly, journalists and editors should avoid personal relationships and political or community affiliations that could compromise the independence of their news coverage.

1f — Any relationships or affiliation that could be perceived as a conflict of interest should be disclosed to the reader or viewer to ensure transparency.

2. Advertisements

2a — Journalists should avoid being spokespeople for products or companies and should disclose any conflicts of interest prominently so viewers, readers or online readers are aware.

2b — Complete operational separation should be maintained between editorial staff and advertising staff. Advertising staff should never attempt to influence new coverage in any way, whether it relates to a current client or not.

2c — No editorial content should be published or broadcast in an attempt to sell an advertisement to a specific client or with the specific intent to earn advertising revenue. Conversely, no media outlet should offer to publish or broadcast a story about an advertiser as an incentive to sell an ad.

2d — Advertisers should not be allowed to stipulate the placement of their ads in close proximity to a specific story about them. Similarly, the juxtaposition of editorial material and advertising on the same products should be avoided in order to prevent readers from questioning the objectivity of the editorial content.

2e — Editorial staff should not be instructed or encouraged to change or withhold editorial content in an attempt to curry favour with or avoid angering an advertiser or potential advertising client. It must be acknowledged that, besides pulling their bylines or refusing to voice a story, reporters have little recourse when this occurs, short of resigning. They look to editors to stand firm in the face of pressure from advertisers. That speaks to the need for an oversight body or ombudsman.

2f  — Editorial content should not be shown to any advertising sales representatives or client prior to publication or broadcast.

2g – Online content should clearly distinguish advertisers’ links and ads from editorial copy and links. Advertisers’ links outside the body of a story should be clearly labeled as such. And, advertisers should not be permitted to pay for links embedded in news stories.

2h — News outlets should disclose the source of photos and video footage not produced by journalists, such as promotional material from a company or materials provided by authorities.

2i — Editorial staff should not be required to prepare special advertising sections for their own publications, or for other publications in their company. In the same vein, the names of editors from the editorial section should not appear on special advertising sections.

2j — Radio and television reporters should not lend their voices to commercials, nor should they be used in product placement segments. Advertising involving journalists and public affairs broadcasters should not be disguised as news and information programming. If a radio segment is paid for by an advertiser, that should be disclosed frequently throughout the segment, not only at the end.

2k – All news outlets should create internally a list of guidelines for editors and advertising sales reps that clarify the segregation of editorial and ad functions and stipulates that an advertiser won’t be guaranteed positive editorial coverage if an ad is purchased.

3. Print Advertorials

Advertorials are advertisements with a story or large textual component meant to mimic genuine news content. Their existence speaks to the persuasive power of news stories produced by independent reporters to inform, educate and influence public opinion. That role should not be abused or undermined by disguising advertising as news.

3a – All readers should be able to readily distinguish between advertising and editorial material. Print advertorials should be clearly labeled as advertising copy, horizontally, at the top of the page, in a point size that’s significantly larger than the body of the text, in a colour that contrasts with the background colour of the page. Similarly, the design and typeface of the advertorial should be markedly different from editorial content. The advertorial typeface and design should not deliberately mimic that of editorial copy.

3b — Advertorials should only be produced by advertising staff or agents, rather than editorial writers or editors. Journalists shouldn’t be pressured to produce advertorials. Similarly, advertorials should not be written by freelancers who normally cover the ad client, the client’s products or the industry.

3c – Advertorials should not be promoted on either the cover or in the newspaper or magazine’s table of contents.

4. Advertiser-sponsored special sections or broadcast segments

These are special newspaper sections, editions of a magazine or broadcast sponsored and conceived of by an advertiser and focused around a specific theme but that allow editorial staff full control over content.

4a — Special ad sections should be clearly marked as different from special investigative or feature reports produced by reporters.

4b — Special editorial sections produced by journalists on a particular topic, sponsored by advertising clients, do not necessarily violate CAJ principles of editorial independence, provided:

i. Neither the client nor the advertising sales staff has any input into the content.

ii. The story ideas were generated by editorial staff, not by advertising sales staff or clients.

iii. Neither the clients, nor the sales representatives, are given the opportunity to review editorial copy prior to publication.

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