It is one of the first rules of journalism that the story must be put to its subject before publication. Except, of course, it isn’t a rule at all.
The Independent’s code of conduct notes that, in preparing a story, journalists should “seek a response from the subject of an article if appropriate (which it usually will be)”. The code of practice overseen by the Independent Press Standards Organisation says nothing explicitly on the subject, although it has always been clear that steps to meet the requirement to “take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information” can include seeking comment from relevant parties.
There may be rare occasions when the potential threat of an injunction is enough to persuade a journalist that a subject should not be notified in advance. Sometimes, it may be unnecessary to obtain comment because the facts of the story are not in dispute or the subject’s position is well known.
But when we do seek a response from people who may be relevant to the topic being reported, are we obliged to publish what they say, as was suggested in a complaint last week? No doubt a person who responds to a request for comment will feel miffed if it doesn’t make the cut. Yet our job is to enlighten readers: and that is not necessarily achieved by publishing anodyne blather from a corporate spokesperson, who has sent us a platitude-filled riddle which adds nothing to the point at hand.
An admission of guilt
There have been enormous advances in the media’s coverage of mental health issues. The openness of some celebrities about their own experiences has helped. So has the realisation that around one in four people will face some sort of mental health problem in any year.
Yet many remain fearful about discussing their psychological well-being. That is evident in the perennial use of the term “admit” when media reports discuss the fact that a particular person has “revealed” an experience of mental ill health.
A reader complained last week that a headline had talked of the singer Florence Welch “admitting” that she had suffered a nervous breakdown. Not only, they said, did this highlight the ongoing existence of a taboo, it also helped to reinforce it.
Certainly, an “admission” has connotations of guilt and shame. And if we really are beyond such stereotypes of mental ill health, we should avoid this hackneyed term.
Journalism must trump advertising
In a column about media ethics it would be remiss not to reflect on last week’s goings-on at the Telegraph, which appears to have responded to the very public resignation of columnist Peter Oborne by turning its guns on anyone – aside from Oborne – who has questioned its integrity.
Oborne’s concern was that his former employer had failed to maintain the proper separation between editorial and commercial departments. Indeed, he is hardly the first to raise questions about the relationship between these arms of any paper.
Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with those working in the journalistic sphere talking to colleagues whose interest lies in selling advertising space. As many media outlets seek to adapt to the new financial realities of the digital age, it is even reasonable that the two departments might find innovative – and transparent – ways to work together.
But if readers lose confidence in the integrity of the journalism, they won’t buy papers at all – and then all the advertising in the world won’t be worth a dime.
Will Gore is Deputy Managing Editor of The Independent, i, Independent on Sunday and the Evening Standard Twitter: @willjgoreReuse content