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How’s our behavior? You’re the judge

Published: Saturday, June 28, 2014 1:15 a.m. CST

In some respects, journalism is a self-policing business.

That’s because, in part, the First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law ...” that punishes the press for bad behavior – real or perceived.

But, as with any business, customers of newspapers and other media outlets are the real judges of press performance and conduct. If you’re not buying, we’re out of business.

To help with your assessment of the newspaper, we offer the Sauk Valley Media Statement of Editorial Principles.

That document offers readers some standards on which they might judge how well we do our jobs.

Just a suggestion.

SIX YEARS AGO, WE adopted that two-page code of conduct.

It’s no coincidence that this editor also arrived at Sauk Valley Media 6 years ago.

In addition to giving readers some guidelines for assessing us, the statement of principles gives this newspaper’s reporters, editors and other newsroom staff some guidelines on how to conduct themselves professionally – mostly on, but also off the job.

This annual column to remind the news staff and readers about the code also gives people a good idea of when the editor has been gone for his annual fishing trip to northwestern Wisconsin.

He will be back in Illinois by the time you read this.

And he appreciated the break from the weekly writing deadline.

IF YOU GO TOOUR website, saukvalley.com, you can click on “Editorial Principles” at the bottom of any page to get the entire code.

No such code can foresee every ethical conflict or problem that newspaper staff members might encounter.

And we acknowledge that some issues of journalists’ conduct can be anything but simple and straightforward.

But we put the code in writing – and print a summary in this column each year – as a reminder to everyone about our commitment to serving the interests of the community and the principles of professional journalism.

As with anything we do, we welcome comments and questions – even criticism – about this document and our adherence to its principles.

Here is an abridged version:

1. WE ARE NOT Special People; We Are Regular People With a Special Job

... We must maintain the highest principles in our conduct. Our integrity is our most valuable asset. Without it, we lose the public trust invested in us by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

This statement offers guidelines to help editors, reporters, photographers and other newsroom personnel to conduct themselves ethically. It is intended as an aid to common sense and individual conscience – not a substitute for them.

2. TRUTH AND Fairness Must Underscore What We Publish, How We Behave

We will acknowledge errors of fact and correct them promptly.

We will seek opposing views and pursue responses from those whose conduct or views are questioned in published articles and personal columns.

We will never knowingly mislead readers by publishing known falsehoods as unquestioned truth.

We will specifically identify people by race, religion, sex or sexual orientation only when readers need that information to understand the context of a story or to aid authorities in the apprehension of criminal suspects.

3. PERSONAL INTEREST Cannot Interfere With Our Acting in the Public Interest

We will not use our newspaper positions to gain benefit or advantage in commercial transactions or personal business for our families, our acquaintances or ourselves.

We will neither seek nor hold government office and will avoid political activity, which includes contributing time or money. ... This is not intended to discourage exercising the right to vote.

4. OUTSIDE WORK Must Not Conflict With Our Primary Job

We may free-lance for publications that are not in direct competition with properties of Sauk Valley Media. ... All free-lance assignments must be approved, in advance, by an appropriate supervisor.

... Nor will our editorial independence be compromised by the appearance of conflict through association with a public agency or private business. To that end, we will neither share nor sell unpublished notes and photographs, and we will resist efforts to compel their disclosure.

5. TV AND RADIO Appearances Extend Our Brand as the Local News Leader

While appearing on TV or radio, we should be identified as representatives of our newspapers. During such an appearance, we should meet the same high standard of fairness and impartiality as is expected in our jobs.

6. PERSONAL Relationships Will Not Affect Our Editorial Judgment

No staff member should write about, photograph, illustrate, or affect news judgments about anyone related by blood or by marriage, or anyone with whom s/he has a personal relationship. This does not apply to first-person stories and personal columns. ...

7. CONFIDENTIAL Sourcing Is Allowed Only in Special Circumstances

We will seek to disclose to readers the name of the source of any information we gather for publication. Such transparency is important to lend credibility to sources and our publications.

Before information is accepted for publication without full attribution, we must make every reasonable effort to get the source on the record. ... If we do withhold a source’s name from publication, we will ask for an on-the-record reason for concealing the identity and will share that reason with readers. ...

8. OBSCENITIES and Profanities Generally Should Be Avoided

With few exceptions, we will not print obscene or profane language. The editor or managing editor must approve any such publication. Source and context will be considered. Obscenities and profanities offend many readers and often divert attention from a story.

9. PEOPLE WITH Whom We Deal Deserve Our Respect

We will seek to protect victims and witnesses of crime, especially when their lives or safety might be endangered by publication of their names or addresses. That includes victims of rape, child molestation, and sexual abuse, and those protected by a restraining order.

10. VIOLATORS Could Face Discipline

A knowing violation of this code will subject an employee to disciplinary action, up to and including termination.

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