Los Angeles Times Ethics Guidelines
Updated: January 2011
The goal of the Los Angeles Times Media Group is to publish news and information of the highest quality. This requires The Times, across its entire portfolio of editorial products, to be, above all else, a principled news organization. Making it so is the responsibility of every staff member.
In deed and in appearance, journalists at The Times must keep themselves – and the organization – above reproach.
The ways a news organization can discredit itself are beyond calculation; these guidelines do not purport to cover them all. It is up to staff members to master these general principles and, beyond that, to listen carefully to their individual sense of right and wrong. If you know of anything that might cast a shadow on The Times’ reputation, you are expected to inform a supervising editor.
This can be an uncomfortable duty; under some circumstances, it can do harm to one’s relationships with others in the newsroom. It is a duty nevertheless. Credibility, a news organization’s most precious asset, is arduously acquired and easily squandered. It can be maintained only if each of us accepts responsibility for it.
The standards outlined here apply to all editorial employees and to the work they produce for The Times, whether it appears in print, on the Web, on television or on any other platform.
When uncertainty arises about the application of these guidelines, the primary goal always should be to protect The Times’ integrity. When in doubt, do not be shy about asking questions. A robust, ongoing discussion of ethics at all levels of the newsroom is essential to producing first-rate journalism.
A fair-minded reader of Times news coverage should not be able to discern the private opinions of those who contributed to that coverage, or to infer that the organization is promoting any agenda. A crucial goal of our news and feature reporting – apart from editorials, columns, criticism, blogs and other content that is expressly opinionated – is to be nonideological. This is a tall order. It requires us to recognize our own biases and stand apart from them. It also requires us to examine the ideological environment in which we work, given that the biases of our sources, our colleagues and our communities can distort our sense of objectivity.
In covering controversial issues – strikes, abortion, gun control and the like – we seek out intelligent, articulate views from all perspectives. Reporters should try genuinely to understand all points of view, rather than simply grab quick quotations to create a semblance of balance.
People who will be shown in an adverse light must be given a meaningful opportunity to defend themselves. This means making a good-faith effort to give the subject of allegations or criticism sufficient time and information to respond substantively. Whenever possible, the reporter should meet face to face with the subject in a sincere effort to understand his or her best arguments.
Investigative reporting requires special diligence with respect to fairness. Those involved in such work should bear in mind that they are more credible when they provide a rich, nuanced account of the topic. Our coverage should avoid simplistic portrayals.
We report in environments – Hollywood and Washington, to name two – where anonymity is routinely sought and casually granted. We stand against that practice and seek to minimize it. We are committed to informing readers as completely as possible; the use of anonymous sources compromises this important value.
These standards are not intended to discourage reporters from cultivating sources who are wary of publicity. Such informants can be invaluable. But the information they provide can often be verified with sources willing to be named, from documents or both. We should make every effort to obtain such verification. Relying on unnamed sources should be a last resort, subject to the following guidelines:
When we use anonymous sources, it should be to convey important information to our readers. We should not use such sources to publish material that is trivial, obvious or self-serving.
Sources should never be permitted to use the shield of anonymity to voice speculation or to make ad hominem attacks.
An unnamed source should have a compelling reason for insisting on anonymity, such as fear of retaliation, and we should state those reasons when they are relevant to what we publish.
The reporter and editor must be satisfied that the source has a sound factual basis for his or her assertions. Some sources quoted anonymously might tend to exaggerate or overreach precisely because they will not be named.
We should identify sources as completely as possible, consistent with the promise of anonymity. In particular, a source’s point of view and potential biases should be disclosed as fully as possible. For instance, “an advisor to Democratic members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee” is preferable to “a congressional source.”
When it is practical, a reporter should consult an editor before entering into an agreement to protect a source’s anonymity. In some cases, an editor may insist on knowing the source’s identity in order to evaluate the reliability of the information provided.
In rare instances, sources may insist that The Times and the reporter resist subpoenas and judicial orders, if necessary, to protect their anonymity. Reporters should consult a masthead editor before entering into any such agreement.
Even in the absence of such an agreement, the possibility exists that a prosecutor, grand jury or judge will demand to know a source’s identity, forcing the reporter to choose between unmasking the source and going to jail for contempt of court. Such situations are rare, and they should not deter us from investigating sensitive or contentious matters.
Reporters should be extremely circumspect about how and where they store information that might identify an anonymous source. Many electronic records, including e-mail, can be subpoenaed from and retrieved by non-newsroom employees.
Promises to a source must be kept except under the most extraordinary circumstances. If a source, acting in bad faith, were to succeed in using The Times to spread misinformation, we would consider our promise of anonymity no longer binding. That said, we do not “burn” sources.
When it is appropriate, reporters should identify the way in which the information was collected – by means of a news release, e-mail, a social media post or a user comment, for instance.
The Times does not make deals in exchange for access. When negotiating with Hollywood publicists, for instance, we do not make promises regarding publication, placement or angle of approach. That such deals are commonplace among entertainment media does not make them acceptable at The Times.
It is permissible to discuss, in general terms, the scope and direction of the coverage we have in mind. It should be clear, however, that the ultimate placement and angle are for reporters and editors to decide.
This practice does not prohibit us from agreeing to delay publication of information provided under embargo.
The Times does not pay sources for information.
We live and work in a media environment suffused with hyperbole. It is The Times’ intention to stand distinctly apart from that world and speak straightforwardly to readers.
Fabrication of any type is unacceptable. We do not create composite characters. We do not use pseudonyms. We do not exaggerate sourcing (a single source is a “source,” not “sources”). We do not manufacture, embroider or distort quotes, whether in print or in the video and audio clips posted on our website.
Superlatives such as “biggest,” “worst” and “most” should be employed only when the writer has proof. It is the responsibility of assigning editors and copy editors to challenge all questionable claims. The burden of proof rests with the writer; it is not the desk’s responsibility to prove the writer wrong.
It is unacceptable to hedge an unverified or unverifiable assertion with words such as “arguably” or “perhaps.” Our job is to report what is true, not what might be.
Datelines are statements of fact and are intended to show where a story or other work was principally reported. Visiting an area fleetingly solely to justify a dateline is not acceptable.
Context will sometimes guide the application of these guidelines on precision. There are instances when hyperbole or sarcasm may be used for comic or literary effect. Columnists may use those devices to make a point, as may humorists. Such techniques should be employed with care.
We conduct our own reporting, but when we rely on the work of others, we credit them. When wire reports are used, we should clearly attribute the source in the narrative.
Facts garnered from reliable reference material may not always have to be attributed. But care should be taken to cross-check facts and to use a variety of such sources.
Juveniles and victims of sex crimes
The Times does not identify the alleged victims of sex crimes or persons under 18 who are charged with crimes. Exceptions occasionally arise. The decision to name individuals in such cases rests with the editor or a managing editor or an editor designated by them.
In general, The Times does not identify suspects of criminal investigations who have not been charged or arrested. On occasion, the prominence of the suspect or the importance of the case will warrant an exception. In those instances, we must take great care that our sourcing is reliable and that law enforcement officials have a reasonable basis for considering the individual a suspect. If someone we have identified as a suspect ultimately is not charged, we should make that known in follow-up coverage. The follow-up should be played comparably to the original reporting if possible.
The Times expects its editorial staff to behave with dignity and professionalism. We do nothing while gathering the news that we would be ashamed to see in print or on television. We do not let the behavior of the pack set standards for us.
In general, we identify ourselves as staff members when covering news events. There are some instances when offering such identification is impossible, impractical or counterproductive, but in no case should a staff member lie about his or her affiliation with The Times. We should deal honorably with people and institutions we cover, just as we expect them to deal honorably with us.
Journalists may not use their affiliation with The Times to resolve personal disputes or seek special treatment or personal benefits.
Corrections and clarifications
When we make mistakes, we quickly and forthrightly correct the record. Readers and staff members who bring mistakes to our attention deserve our gratitude. A staff member who receives a complaint about the accuracy of our work should inform an editor. No staff member should decide on his or her own that a complaint does not warrant a correction. (Note: The Times’ corrections guidelines spell out in greater detail our procedures for handling complaints, corrections and retraction demands.)
PHOTOS and GRAPHICS
Photographs and graphics must inform, not mislead. Any attempt to confuse readers or misrepresent visual information is prohibited.
In photographing news, we do not stage or reenact events. Photographers may direct subjects of portraits, fashion shoots or studio work. In presenting such images, we must avoid creating the impression that they were captured spontaneously.
We do not add color, create photomontages, remove objects or flop images. We do not digitally alter images beyond making minor adjustments for color correction, exposure correction and removal of dust spots or scratches required to ensure faithful reproduction of the original image. Exaggerated use of burning, dodging or color saturation is not permitted.
On occasion, we publish artistic or graphic renderings that include altered photographs. Such renderings should be clearly labeled “photo illustration.” Before creating a photo illustration, photographers, photo editors and designers must obtain approval from a senior editor for photography.
Complex graphic illustrations should be similarly labeled.
Photo editors must verify the authenticity of handout photos. Except in rare instances, credit lines must identify the source of such photographs.
VIDEO AND AUDIO
The growing use of electronic media by The Times creates challenges that may, on occasion, require staff members to apply the principles embodied in these guidelines in new ways. To cite one possible example: Journalists should understand that a person who consents to a tape-recorded interview may not want the recording made available on our website.
The Times increasingly is engaged in video production, both for the Web and for other Tribune outlets. In general, video is governed by the same ethical practices as still photography (see above). Distortion of any type is improper. In editing video, do not insert words or splice together statements made at different times so as to suggest that they were uttered at the same time. Excerpts of an interview or address generally should be presented in the order in which they occurred. If an interview is presented in question-and-answer format, the questions must be presented as they were asked. Reaction shots may not be altered after the fact and should be shot in the presence of the interview subject whenever possible. Staging is prohibited.
In rare instances, re-creations of events may be justified; they must be clearly labeled as such. Video, images or graphics obtained from outside sources must be clearly identified.
Times journalists who accept invitations to appear on other Tribune outlets or in other media forums should be mindful that their remarks require the same care, discretion and neutrality as their published reports.
CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
Guidelines cannot cover every conceivable conflict of interest. If doubt exists, staff members should consult a supervisor. Nevertheless, some principles are clear.
Staff members may not enter into business or financial relationships with their sources. Similarly, staff members may not cover individuals or institutions with which they have a financial relationship.
In no circumstance will staff members allow personal investments to influence their news decisions. They may not work on material that could, in any way, shape events for their own financial gain. Likewise, they may not use nonpublic information obtained by The Times to make personal investment decisions.
In the case of, say, a personal finance columnist who owns securities in a company or shares in a fund, the columnist must disclose this financial interest to readers whenever writing about the company or fund.
Because these issues arise most frequently for journalists covering business, a supplementary set of guidelines applies to the business staff.
Our place in the community
Editorial employees may not use their positions to promote personal agendas or causes. Nor should they allow their outside activities to undermine the impartiality of Times coverage, in fact or appearance.
Staff members may not engage in political advocacy – as members of a campaign or an organization specifically concerned with political change. Nor may they contribute money to a partisan campaign or candidate. No staff member may run for or accept appointment to any public office.
Staff members should avoid public expressions or demonstrations of their political views, whether on bumper stickers, lawn signs, blog posts, social media or online comments.
Although The Times does not seek to restrict staff members’ participation in civic life or journalistic organizations, they should be aware that outside affiliations and memberships may create real or apparent ethical conflicts. When those affiliations have even the slightest potential to damage The Times’ credibility, staff members should proceed with caution and take care to advise supervisors.
Some types of civic participation may be deemed inappropriate. An environmental writer, for instance, would be prohibited from affiliating with environmental organizations, a health writer from joining medical groups, a business editor from membership in certain trade or financial associations.
More broadly, staff members should be aware of the goals and funding sources of organizations with which they affiliate, and should avoid those whose purpose or backing could embarrass The Times or compromise the staff member’s credibility.
Times journalists occasionally are invited to speak to organizations or to appear on discussion panels. Before accepting, they should consider the purpose of the event and how it might be perceived. Staff members should avoid situations in which their participation could be construed as endorsement of the sponsoring organization’s interests. In general, staff members should refuse honoraria for appearances, though exceptions may be made when the sponsors are educational institutions or journalistic organizations.
Staff members should be careful during such appearances not to make comments that stray beyond what they would write in the newspaper or online.
Activities of family members may create conflicts of interest. The Times recognizes that it has no authority to restrict the activities of spouses, companions or close relatives of staff members who do not themselves work for The Times. However, The Times may restrict a staff member’s assignment based on the activities of a family member or loved one. Staff members are responsible for informing a supervisor whenever a companion’s or close relative’s activities, investments or affiliations could create a conflict.
Staff members should enter their work only in contests whose central purpose is to recognize journalistic excellence. The Times does not participate in contests that exist primarily to publicize or further the cause of an organization. Under no circumstances may staff members accept awards from groups they cover. A staff member who is offered an award should consult his or her supervisor before accepting it.
The Times, like many other news organizations, does not allow its sportswriters to participate in voting for baseball’s Hall of Fame, college football’s Heisman Trophy and national rankings in college sports, among other areas. Participation in these polls creates possibilities for conflicts of interest. Similar issues arise in the arts when journalists are invited to vote for awards and prizes in film, literature and other fields.
In general, it is inappropriate for reporters to vote for awards and rankings; doing so could reasonably be seen as compromising their objectivity. For critics, whose job is to express opinions on the merits of creative works, awards voting is less troublesome.
Nevertheless, any staff member invited to vote for an award must first receive the permission of the editor or a managing editor. This pertains as well to anyone asked to serve as a contest juror or to vote on an award that honors journalism. No staff member who votes for an award – whether in sports, the arts or any other area – may be part of The Times’ news coverage of that award.
Our principle is that we pay our own way. However, news gathering often occurs in settings where payment is awkward or impossible. When that happens, staff members should make every effort to reciprocate as soon as possible. Let common sense and good manners be the guide.
It is Times policy to reimburse organizations that provide meals or refreshments to journalists covering events they sponsor.
The Times also pays for travel by staff members on assignment. They may not accept free or discounted transportation or accommodations unless the same discount is available to the public.
Exceptions may arise when access to a news event or source can be gained no other way. A journalist covering a military or scientific expedition, for instance, may have no reasonable method to pay for travel. Those arrangements should, however, be the exception.
The Times receives countless unsolicited items, such as books, CDs and food, to review or cover. They are tantamount to news releases. Accordingly, staff members may keep such items for reference, share them with other staff members, donate them to charity or throw them away. No staff member may sell or otherwise profit by review materials.
Items of significant value – such as electronic equipment, rare books and premium wine – must be returned.
Staff members are prohibited from accepting gifts from or giving gifts to news sources, potential news sources or those who seek to influence coverage. Exceptions can be made when reporting in countries and cultures in which refusing to accept or provide a modest gift would give offense. When in doubt about the appropriateness of a gift, ask a supervising editor.
Tickets and admission
Staff members attending cultural and sporting events purely for private enjoyment may not use their affiliation with The Times to gain access or to avoid paying.
Editorial employees should make every effort to pay for admission to cultural events that they cover or that pertain to their coverage area. Press “comps” are to be used only by critics and coverage reporters and editors – and only for professional, not personal, purposes.
Arts organizations commonly provide critics’ press passes in pairs. Because a critic’s appreciation of a performance or work of art is enriched by viewing and discussing it with someone else, a critic may accept the additional pass for a colleague, spouse, companion or friend with an editor’s approval.
The first professional duty of every Times employee is to the Los Angeles Times. Freelance work must be considered in that light, as it may at times conflict with The Times’ interests, affect its reputation or distract staff members from their obligations to the organization.
Subject to those limitations, staff members are free to do outside creative, community or personal work, including writing articles and books, giving speeches or appearing on TV or online venues. But before accepting freelance assignments, staff members must obtain clearance from a supervisor.
Supervisors may deny a proposal if sensitive unpublished material gathered by The Times is likely to be shared with an outside party.
Work for organizations that compete with The Times is not permitted. In disputed cases, the editor and a managing editor will determine who our competitors are.
Journalists may not work for people or organizations they cover or who are regular subjects of Times coverage. Blogs and social media have created potential quandaries for staff members who want to express themselves through those channels. No matter how careful staff members might be to distinguish their personal work from their professional affiliation with The Times, outsiders are likely to see them as intertwined.
As a result, any staff member who seeks to create a personal blog must clear it with a supervisor; approval will be granted only if the proposed blog meets The Times’ journalistic standards. When approval is granted, staff members should take care not to write anything in their blogs that would not be acceptable in Times publications. Staff members should observe the same principle when contributing to blogs other than their own or to social media.
An additional word on freelancing, especially as it relates to reporting in Southern California: The entertainment industry is a central area of our coverage, and staff members must take special care not to create the appearance of conflicts should they seek work in that industry. Any screenplay or proposed movie or television deal must be disclosed to an editor before outside interest is solicited. When Hollywood agents or executives contact Times staff to discuss possible deals, those contacts should be promptly disclosed to a supervising editor.
No Times journalist who covers the entertainment industry should ever propose a script or movie idea – or any other entertainment product – to anyone working in that industry.
FREELANCERS WORKING FOR THE TIMES
The work of freelance journalists appears in our publications alongside staff-produced content. Freelancers must therefore approach their work without conflicts and must adhere to the same standards of professionalism that The Times requires of its own staff, including these guidelines. It is the responsibility of assigning editors to inquire about a freelancer’s potential conflicts of interest before making an assignment.
Conflict-of-interest provisions may apply differently to contributors to the Op-Ed pages. They are expected to bring institutional and personal perspectives to their work. They are not expected to avoid conflicts, but they are expected to disclose them.