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Sept. 4, 2014, 10 a.m.
Reporting & Production

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism came out with a hefty report earlier this week on developing editorial standards for journalism. “Accuracy, Independence and Impartiality: How legacy media and digital natives approach standards in the digital age,” profiles media companies and describes challenges each were faced with and how they came to craft transparent guidelines for those situations. Kellie Riordan, author of the study, writes:

Journalism is facing many challenges in the 21st century, as traditional business models become more precarious and the Internet becomes overcrowded with a deluge of information. In the digital age, one of the most complex challenges is how to re-shape the processes and editorial responsibilities of journalism itself. Which journalistic standards, many devised more than a century ago, still fit in the digital age? And which standards form the basis of a new type of journalism being pioneered by hybrid news sites that have come of age in the digital era?

The key questions to be examined are:
1. Do current editorial standards fit digital journalism, or does the nature of digital and social journalism require different standards?

2. Which standards do legacy and digitally native news organisations place a premium on and why? Which principles do they share? Where does any difference in standards occur?

For a useful rundown of the top takeaways, RISJ has an executive summary that addresses verification, social media, emerging news providers, transparency, and more. Journalism.co.uk has a helpful roundup of examples of how these issues have played out in newsrooms.

Overall, the outlook is optimistic, suggesting that digital tools are more likely to enhance standards than to detract from them. The report quotes Frederic Filloux, “We are witnessing the emergence of a new breed of smaller, digital-only outlets that are closing the gap, quality-wise, with legacy media. In the context of an increasingly segmented and short-on-time readership, I can wonder how long the legacy newsroom’s strategic advantage of size and scope will last.”

To produce the report, researchers focused on interviews with leaders at six leading news organizations — The New York Times, The Guardian, and the BBC representing legacy media, and Vice, BuzzFeed and Quartz representing new media. Here are some of the more interesting facts about news standards from each organization:

The Guardian

In 2002, The Guardian became the first U.K. newspaper to publish its editorial code online. “It covers areas including attribution, corrections, privacy, and dealing with conflicts of interests,” Riordan writes. According to the report, compared with the BBC and The New York Times, The Guardian has been much more open to subjective, opinionated voices in its pages — for example, they hired blogger/advocate Glenn Greenwald. (That said, the paper ultimately had to get rid of onetime writer Julian Assange.) At The Guardian, reporting in blogs is verified and writers are also allowed to have a voice.

Quartz

While Quartz has public facing guidelines for editorial standards that include verification, the website doesn’t employ fact-checkers. Instead, they rely upon transparent, prominent corrections. “We try to encourage on social media and through the annotations on our site to get people to correct us if we get things wrong, and we try to be transparent about those corrections if they’ve happened,” says Quartz senior editor Gideon Litchfield. Reporters are supposed to be comfortable with telling their audience when they don’t know something, rather than trying to appear omniscient, the report says. Formats like “obsessions,” which imply constantly developing reporting, enhance this stance. Further, Quartz welcomes contributors with outside opinions, but says those articles are edited to site-wide standards.

The New York Times

According to the report, the Times is in a position of self-reflection on many of these issues. The paper is committed to impartiality, and is concerned about maintaining brand consistency. “We feel our fundamental journalistic standards should be the same across the board, regardless of the platform,” says managing editor for standards Philip Corbett. Also interesting: the Times has steered clear of creating any formal guidelines for how employees use social media out of the fear that rules and consequences would discourage journalists from using these platforms.

BuzzFeed

Obviously, given its provenance, BuzzFeed has an exceptional challenge when it comes to developing and convincing the world of its commitment to newsroom standards. The report highlights past mistakes with verification, and points out that the site didn’t have a style guide until 2014. BuzzFeed has found that the best way to deal with hoaxes is, as with digital native Quartz, to be aggressive with corrections.

The BBC

The world’s largest broadcast news organization has the strictest and clearest standards of almost any news outlet, which, according to the report, can make it hard for them to compete for audience attention. The report suggests this strictness can also create a damaging “false balance,” in which a commitment to impartiality can overwhelm a commitment to the truth. Inside the BBC there is division over the future of the organization and whether the broadcaster needs to be one of a handful of purely objective news outlets in the cacophonous digital age, or adapt to places like BuzzFeed in order to survive.

Vice

Vice says their style is determined by technology. As platforms have become more open ended, it’s becoming increasingly possible to broadcast a wide swath of voices and opinions, unedited. Says Vice cofounder and CEO Shane Smith:

We definitely approach it from a documentary, film-making standpoint of ‘go there, press record and let the story unfold’, rather than the more traditional journalistic shoe-horning the story style. We have been accused of being subjective and yes we are subjective. It’s almost impossible to be objective when you’re going from New York into sub-Saharan Africa into a conflict and saying ‘well I am going to be completely objective’. I don’t think that’s possible.

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