Judge M&G’s standards for yourself

The document emerged from several months of workshops and discussion among editorial staff. The process itself was important to ensure that everyone on the paper “owns” the code.

It really was time for a revision. The old “Journalists’ Guidelines”, written in an alphabetical style that put corrections next to conflicts of interest, were a child of their time. But standards and expectations shift, and new challenges arise for which journalists need guidance. Other issues, like the old guidelines’ extensive focus on reviews, had become less important, staff felt. So what’s new and different in the code?

There is a new preamble that sets out the basic claim of the M&G‘s approach to journalism. It puts the enterprise in the context of the South African Constitution, which recognises the central importance of an informed citizenry and guarantees the right to know. The preamble also salutes those who fought to create the democratic order, pledges to defend core freedoms and commits the paper to the highest standards.

The area where the document has probably taken the biggest step forward is in its approach to sourcing and evidence. The paper has recognised that expectations have risen and it is no longer enough for a journalist to expect readers to take information on trust.

The code says: “We will show readers the chain of evidence we have.” The task is not just to report but to persuade readers that the information on offer is valid. So you can expect reports to indicate sources clearly, to show what kind of corroboration was found — and also where there are uncertainties.

Other provisions about accuracy and sourcing are less unusual but they are embedded in this basic approach. So the use of anonymous sources is circumscribed and journalists are required to keep a sharp eye out for information that comes with an agenda.

Both anonymous sources and those with an agenda will remain with us — there are too many valid and important stories that would otherwise remain untold. But journalists should use them carefully.

The paper has sometimes been criticised for offending readers’ religious or other sensitivities, and the code says the paper will not do so gratuitously.

Of course, it is likely that views will sometimes differ about when offence is gratuitous and when it is necessary. But that’s the nature of a code of this kind — it can set out broad principles but must leave the detailed consideration of an issue to the judgment of the editor.

A new area that needed attention was the online environment — both the paper’s increasingly important website and the social media that have become a critical part of journalism. The code addresses the question of how readers’ comments online will be handled. On this point, it says readers will be encouraged to participate in the discussion but basic standards will be upheld.

It has become a difficult area, since some kind of moderation of comments is essential, and online readers’ expectation of instant publication sometimes run up against the technical and human difficulties of moderating a flood of comments.

The code also reminds staff that their private activities can have an impact on their and the newspaper’s reputation, particularly opinions expressed on Facebook, Twitter and the like.

An elaboration of this point will come in the form of an appendix to the code.

Other areas will also be handled in this way. An appendix already in place details policy on gifts and freebies, and sets up a “register of outside interests”, where staff members will have to declare any interests that may at some stage have an impact on their work. Another, yet to be drafted, will deal with the line between advertising, editorial and advertorial material.

The code commits the M&G to accountability and says “responses to complaints will be generous, helpful and governed by the need to make sure readers get the fullest information available”.

The intention is not to replace the industry-wide Press Code, and the new code in fact expressly commits the paper to accept the South African Press Ombudsman’s jurisdiction. It is an additional statement of the paper’s own aspirations and standards.

The paper invites readers to measure it against these commitments — because excellence in journalism benefits everyone.

This column was originally published in the The Mail & Guardian on April 11, 2011.

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