Reporting about people
A reputation for accurate, balanced reporting is one of Reuters biggest assets. We must not shy away from painful reality, but we should also seek to minimise any harm to the public through our actions. The people who make the news are vulnerable to the impact of our stories. In extreme cases, their lives or their reputations could depend on our reporting.
When covering people in the news, Reuters journalists:
- Avoid needless pain and offence.
- Treat victims with sensitivity.
- Eschew gossip about the private lives of public figures.
- Avoid sensationalism and hype.
- Seek clear, unambiguous accounts of the facts.
- Are on alert for spin and other forms of media manipulation.
- Are wary of assumptions and bias, including our own as journalists.
A Reuters journalist shows integrity, impartiality, persistence, accountability and humility when covering people. When these principles are applied, we should be able to defend any story to ourselves, our sources and our readers. Here are some guidelines.
Stereotypes and value judgments
We must be wary of clichéd references to gender, ethnicity, appearance, age, and sexual orientation. When a story relies on such references, we should ask if this is a Reuters story at all. Some media outlets indulge in casual sexism and the typecasting of minorities. Reuters does not. We do not do pick-ups of these stories either. We should be especially wary of “odd” stories that promote stereotypes and are not particularly funny.
A Reuters journalist must be sensitive to unconscious stereotyping and dated assumptions. Is it really novel that the person in the news is black, blonde, female, overweight or gay? If it is relevant, does the fact belong in the lead or should it be woven in lower down?
Excessive political correctness is as unwelcome as stereotyping. A personality piece based on an interview with a CEO who juggles work with raising five children could make valid references to these personal challenges. A spot news story about this CEO under fire over corporate strategy would not.
Our language should be neutral and natural. When referring to professional groups, plural expressions such as executives and journalists are preferable to gender-specific tags that imply the exclusion of women. But we should avoid artificial words such as “spokesperson” when describing a role. Emotive adjectives and epithets carelessly inserted in copy hold particular dangers. We should avoid gratuitous references to appearance or attire, while recognising the situations when these details are relevant.
We aim to show, not tell. Responsible journalists are sensitive to the implied rebuke in verbs such as “refuse to” and “fail to”. The reader should judge people with the facts and quotes we supply, not our interpretations.
Crime reporting requires particular care with race, sexual orientation and religion. Any such information must be strictly relevant and scrupulously sourced. We should be aware of the risk of implying guilt by association. In reporting on killings, we stick to the incontrovertible facts. A particular type of uniform or dress is not proof of religion or nationality.
Religious, cultural and national differences
Responsible journalists are sensitive to the difference between religion and culture, and the fact that they often overlap. Many traditions or beliefs considered religious are actually cultural, limited to a certain region or group.
An attack carried out in the name of a religion should not cast suspicion on all followers of that creed. People who resort to violence are a minority in any religion. But the religious connection is relevant for our reporting if an attacker invokes spiritual beliefs or has links to a group that seeks religious justification for violence.
Finding the proper terms for such groups can be difficult. All main religions have minorities that react to modern life by promoting what they see as the basic, time-honoured principles of their faith. This is fundamentalism but we must be careful about using the term because it is now so widely associated with violence and one particular creed.
We should seek precision with religious descriptions. “Islamist” indicates an emphasis on Muslim principles. The adjective “Islamic” refers primarily to the religion while “Muslim” has both religious and cultural connotations. We must also be clear about distinctions within religions, indicating whether Muslims are Sunni or Shi’ite or noting which Christian denomination is involved.
When covering violence, it can also be difficult to distinguish sectarian from religious or separatist conflict. In cases where the line between nationalism, religion and culture is unclear, we should try to explain the historical and demographic background instead of glossing over the problem with oversimplified tags. Reuters reporters must resist the assumption that their cultural values, religious beliefs or social mores are the norm. When referring to holidays, seasons and weekends, we must be sure the descriptions apply to the region in question, and can be understood by people of different cultures.
We should be suspicious of country stereotypes – the usually negative notions about a national character. These can be offensive and outdated clichés. References to country stereotypes may be valid in certain well-balanced stories, but we should always proceed with caution, even when seeking to challenge or subvert a preconception.
When reporting on tragedies, we should be sensitive to the risk of implying that a Western life is worth more than an African or Asian casualty. Reuters writes from a global perspective, while applying common sense and news judgment in cases where one group of victims deserves to be highlighted.
Trauma and taste
In questioning people who have suffered physically or emotionally, our primary responsibility is to seek news through witness statements. A complex story can be compellingly told through the experience of one victim. But we must avoid adding to interviewees’ peril or distress. We must always identify ourselves as journalists and be absolutely open about our intentions. Reporters should seek out those who want to talk. Interviewees must be aware that their comments and identities may be widely publicised. When dealing with people who are unfamiliar with international media, we must take care to avoid placing interviewees at risk. In reporting on suffering, a restrained style is often the most effective.
In matters of taste, whether in descriptions of violence or the use of language, the priority is accurate, comprehensive reporting. We do not sanitise violence, bowdlerise speech or euphemise sex. We should, however, exercise judgment to avoid appearing gratuitously offensive or titillating. Where a graphic detail or a profane phrase may offend, we should ask whether the story requires it. If it does, use it but send the story ATTENTION EDITOR with a warning line for readers (e.g. ”Contains strong language in paragraph 6”). TV and pictures must exercise care in using graphic material that could damage the dignity of victims and cause their families distress. Ask yourself how you would feel if your clearly identifiable relative were pictured.
The best way to avoid causing harm to the public is by providing the complete facts, all sides of an argument, and the relevant context in neutral prose. Reuters journalists keep digging and questioning. When the access to information is restricted, or a piece of the puzzle is missing, we should say so.
We must be on alert for language that could imply support for one side of a conflict, sympathy for a point of view, or an ethnocentric vantage point. We should, for example, provide the dual names of disputed territories. We must not parrot any loaded expressions used by our sources, except in quotes and official titles. Generic references to a specific country as “the homeland” for example, are unwelcome.
With coverage of crime, security and medical problems, we should offer ample context to help readers assess the risk to their own health or safety, mindful of the danger of inflating public fears through sensationalised reporting.
Security alerts that move markets, cause disruption, or involve a risk to key public figures or institutions are legitimate stories. When covering medical issues, we must beware of instilling false hope with loose talk about miracle cures and scientific breakthroughs. Independent confirmation or expert peer review is required for any story about a major scientific advance. We must avoid hype in the coverage of epidemics, seeking to quantify the statistical risk.
If what seems like a routine murder is getting extensive attention, we should explain why, quoting qualified commentators. Groups with vested interests may seek to exploit or sensationalise crimes through media campaigns. Other crimes may become legitimately iconic by touching a public nerve.
Vulnerable groups and easy targets
We should always proceed with caution when interviewing children, especially trauma victims and child soldiers. Description of the suffering of children may suffice to convey the drama. When we decide to talk to a child directly, we should be satisfied the interview is crucial to the telling of an important story. The overriding concern must be to avoid exposing a minor to harm and we must do our utmost to minimise the stress of the experience for the subject. In normal circumstances, a reporter needs the permission of the appropriate authority such as a parent, guardian or school authority to interview a child. There are severe restrictions on talking to children involved in criminal proceedings in most jurisdictions and in identifying minors in such cases.
When covering people who are newsworthy because of their profession, we should seek to distinguish between public and private spheres. We should be satisfied that references to the personal lives of politicians, royals or corporate executives are broadly relevant to their role, their policies or their chosen image. Being a public figure should not make every aspect of your life and every member of your extended family fair game. But public figures who bring their families or personal attributes into the media spotlight should expect scrutiny of these areas.
With coverage of rich, famous or powerful people, we are wise to question our sources’ motives at every step. We need to be on high alert for smears and self-promotion.
Entertainment stories must meet our rigorous standards. We should not rush to pick up dubiously sourced stories about entertainers just because the coverage would be guaranteed to get wide play. Media celebrities are qualified to talk about the acting profession and the entertainment industry. We should have a good reason for quoting showbiz stars on other matters such as world affairs or politics. We should also be wary of tabloid-style typecasting of public figures such as royals, who may traditionally decline the right to reply.
Self-awareness and restraint
People stories can bring out the purple-prose writer in all of us. We are wise to consider whether our own emotions – envy, distrust, empathy, pride – may skew our writing and obscure the story.
Before filing a story about people, it can be helpful to imagine how they would react to your words. If they would love the story, you may have been spun. If the reaction is likely to be negative, could you defend your approach as accurate and fair?
Ambition lies behind many of the ethical lapses in the media industry, including the deadly sins of plagiarism and fabrication. Ambition is welcome in news gathering but responsible journalists never sacrifice ethics in pursuit of a byline.
Category: Specialised Guidance