This document provides ethical principles and guidelines for Masters of Journalism students enrolled in JOUR 555A at the The School of Journalism, Writing, and Media at the University of British Columbia (UBC).
We ask students to reflect carefully on their own emerging professional ethics as they engage with this International Reporting course. The opportunity for students to pursue one international story in depth over two semesters, and to travel to a developing country to conduct field research, is unique in Canada. As journalists, often working in partnership with large media organizations, you will be expected to conduct yourselves ethically according to the codes of the profession, becoming standard-bearers for the profession itself. As UBC students, you will be expected to conduct yourselves responsibly, safely, with cultural sensitivity, and to uphold the global reputation of the school. As human beings, you will need to openly question your own ethical assumptions in a cross-cultural context. You will also have to be the final judge of what you think is right.
The Global Reporting Program students from diverse cultural and political backgrounds, intent on pursuing a professional journalism career in many different Northern and Southern nations. We employ the US-based but internationally-oriented Society of Professional Journalists’ (SPJ) Code of Ethics to guide student professional activities. Students are expected to become deeply familiar with this code, as they encounter and think through ethical challenges in both their theoretical and practical work.
The SPJ code of ethics revolves around four key principles: Seek Truth and Report it; Minimize Harm; Act Independently; Be Accountable. The code is included in full below.
The following guidelines are intended to assist students and faculty in implementing the SPJ principles during global reporting assignments. Students should familiarize themselves with these at the beginning of the course. These guidelines have been drawn up through consultation with students about the ethical challenges they have encountered.
- Reporting teams should present themselves clearly as student journalists and faculty from the UBC Global Reporting Program who are working on professional media products.
- If working in a partnership with a media organization, disclose the name of this organization and the likely format of the resulting story at all times.
- Ensure all sources understand their remarks and images may be published or broadcast to a large international audience.
- Keep clearly organized notes, including names and contact details of sources, interview questions and responses.
Professional relationships and collaborations
Working with “fixers”
- While we try to avoid the correspondent-fixer methodology of global reporting, sometimes it is necessary to hire local professionals to assist with the logistical challenges of reporting a story in a foreign country, on a short-time scale. They may provide valuable background information, organize access to sources, and coordinate transport, translations, visas, and other logistics.
- Reporting teams should draw up a written agreement or contract with their fixers in advance of their reporting trip. This should include the fixer’s responsibilities, the team’s expectations, and agreed amount and method of payment for services and expenses.
- Fixers are paid at the market rate for the location, and all payments must be documented with receipts.
- Industry and advocacy groups should not be paid as fixers.
- Maintain a relationship of professional distance with fixers. Avoid staying in their houses, sharing hotel rooms, or giving or receiving gifts.
- If a fixer is a journalist in the host country and contributes to the development of a story, he or she should – whenever possible – be credited in the final piece.
Working with sources
- Sources are those who feature in a story or who provide information valuable to a story. They may include individuals or representatives from governments, non-profit organizations, advocacy groups, universities, or industry.
- Provide sources with a clear explanation of the purpose of the global reporting project, and a verbal synopsis of the intended story.
- Translate all such explanations, and all release forms, into the local language (and appropriate dialects).
- Obtain signed release forms before conducting interviews, whenever possible.
- Do not submit pre-written interview questions to sources in advance. You may however submit topic areas, and likely discussion points.
- Reporting teams should strive to make it clear to sources that their information, interviews, or quotes may be broadcast to large audiences, or may not feature at all in the resulting story.
- In some circumstances, we may agree to a source’s conditions limiting the use of information they give them. In these instances, we should make these conditions transparent in the reporting (e.g. transparency buttons can be used in multimedia, to avoid interference with the storytelling
- Maintain a relationship of professional distance with sources. As far as possible, avoid staying in their houses, sharing hotel rooms, or giving or receiving gifts.
- Never accept payment from sources for reporting their side of the story.
- Be respectful of the time and energy people invest to help, and let everyone who has assisted in the development of a story know when the final product is due to be broadcast. Alert sources to any key changes – especially those that may be unwelcome, such as an interview being cut, or a shift in story focus – and stress how valuable their input was regardless.
- Make extra effort to ensure that vulnerable (e.g. sick, elderly, young, poor, or illiterate) people fully understand the implications of their participation in a story. E.g. release forms should be translated verbally to illiterate individuals.
- Avoid reinforcing the stereotypes that can surround poor, sick, elderly, disabled, or indigenous people by insensitive interviewing or framing of their participation in a story.
- Consider the impacts that international broadcast of a vulnerable person’s story might have on their health, safety, prosperity, and that of their family.
Working with translators
- Work with professional translators to ensure that release forms, verbal explanations, and interview questions and answers are accurately recorded and understood by all parties.
- If fixers are used as translators, ensure that they have the required language skills.
- Try to avoid using sources, or those with any stake in the story, as translators. In exceptional circumstances where this is necessary, reporting teams should be extra vigilant about checking the accuracy of the translation. Where possible, draw up a written contract or agreement with translators in advance of a reporting trip.
- All translations must be checked for accuracy by a second translator, on return from the field.
Participation in a story
- If a student is asked to participate in a story, faculty consultation is required.
Professionalism and cultural sensitivity
Dress, language, and gender interactions
- Reporting teams should research the cultural, linguistic, and religious norms (and tensions) of every place they travel to, and make every effort to act with sensitivity and respect.
- This includes understanding and using the correct language and gestures of polite greeting, respecting religious observances, and showing sensitivity to gender norms.
- Dress professionally but appropriately in the field. Business attire may be appropriate when interviewing officials in a major city; long comfortable clothing to prevent mosquito bites and sunstroke may be appropriate when filming in remote rural areas.
- Pay particular attention to culturally appropriate dress and interaction. Revealing shoulders, heads, and ankles, and shaking hands with men, for instance, can cause severe offense in some cultures.
Gift-giving and hospitality
- In some cultures, refusing small gestures of hospitality (such as drinks, meals or small gifts) may be insulting. Reporting teams should balance the risk of offense against the risk of compromising their journalistic independence.
- Inappropriate gifts and other benefits should be returned with a polite explanation that these compromise your neutrality and independence.
Payment and tipping for services
- Pay the market rate for accommodation, equipment rental, transport, and other services.
- Avoid staying in private homes.
- Follow local norms with regard to tipping waiters, drivers, fixers, and others.
- Document all payments and tips (no matter how small). Where possible, keep receipts and stored them safely.
Ethical concerns or disagreements
- In the case of ethical concerns or disagreement, students can approach the department head at the UBC School of Journalism for guidance and arbitration. The university also has an Ombud Office, which can address some concerns (ombudsoffice.ubc.ca).
- Errors should be corrected quickly, appropriately, and explicitly as soon as they become evident. Corrections should say what was wrong as well as putting it right.
- Corrections at the Journalism School are published at the top of a story, to indicate that it was corrected, with a link to the bottom of the story outlining what was corrected and why.