Mail & Guardian Editorial Code of Ethics
As the Mail & Guardian and its staff, we commit ourselves to the highest standards of independent journalism.
As the Mail & Guardian and its staff, we commit ourselves to the highest standards of independent journalism. We serve the public’s right to know, in line with section 16 of South Africa’s constitution which guarantees this fundamental right in order to allow citizens to make decisions and judgments about their society. We pledge to exercise our role with great care and responsibility to safeguard public trust in our integrity. We salute those in our history who fought racism and oppression and created a democratic order which guarantees this right, and pledge to defend it at all times.
1. Accuracy & sourcing
Our first duty is to report accurately. We will take care to evaluate information provided to us and to cross-check it as much as possible before publishing. We will show readers the chain of evidence we have.
1.1 The more serious and controversial a claim is, the more corroboration will be required before it can be published. A single source will not usually be sufficient. Secondary sources like other newspaper reports will be treated with caution, and clearly identified.
1.2 Anonymous sources will be avoided unless there is no other way to handle a story and there is extensive additional evidence available. Where sources cannot be named, they will still be identified as closely as possible by reference to their organisation, position, relevance to the story or similar.
1.3 Anonymity will only be granted if the source can persuade us that they have sound reasons for the request. It is not available to people peddling rumour, comment or spin. However, once it has been granted, the newspaper will protect the identity of the source.
1.4 We will take particular care with information that is passed on to us in furtherance of a particular agenda, and will seek additional corroboration in the light of the motives and interests of a source.
1.5 Plagiarism will not be tolerated.
1.6 Headlines, captions and posters will fairly reflect the content of articles.
1.7 Special care will be taken with details like numbers, dates, names and words from South African languages other than English.
We will treat the sources and subjects of our reporting fairly, making sure they have a full opportunity to respond to reporting that may affect them. This means actively seeking out all relevant views and giving people sufficient time to formulate a response. A report can only go ahead without relevant responses if the opportunity to comment has been declined, or if the editor is satisfied that all reasonable measures have been exhausted. In this case, the situation will be explained to readers.
Our journalistic duty to inform the public trumps all other considerations, whether they are financial, political, personal or any other non-professional interests. This includes the business interests of the paper itself. We will avoid conflicts of interest as well as the appearance of conflicts of interest.
3.1 Editorial material will be kept clearly distinct from advertising or any paid-for content. Any outside support for editorial work, such as through sponsored travel, will be declared in the relevant report.
3.2 Gifts, favours and freebies will be handled in accordance to the newspaper’s policy, which is designed to underline that our goodwill cannot be bought through these means.
3.3 Journalists may only take on outside paid work if it does not impact on their primary responsibilities or create a perception of a conflict of interest, and then only with the permission of the editor.
3.4 Journalists will bear in mind that their private activities can impact on their and the newspaper’s reputation. This extends to opinions expressed on public or semi-public social networking platforms.
4. Minimising harm
We recognise that the media can have a harmful impact on the subjects of our reports, our sources, our audiences and society in general, and pledge to minimise it. We will take particular care when dealing with vulnerable people and groups.
4.1 We will not fuel racism or racist stereotypes, and respect the constitutional prohibition of hate speech. We will take note of sensitivities arising from our history, but will not shy away from reporting issues involving race. We acknowledge that racial attitudes are often deeply ingrained, and will always be willing to interrogate our news choices and other editorial decisions for any unspoken and hidden assumptions that may be distorting our judgment.
4.2 We acknowledge the multiple layers of disadvantage affecting black people, women and other groups, and our reporting will always reflect this insight.
4.3 We will avoid racial labels unless they are essential to understanding. Similarly, we will avoid other labels that may feed into social prejudices of various kinds, around religion, culture, gender, sexual orientation, HIV status and many others. We will be careful to avoid anything that fuels xenophobia.
4.4 We will take note of social sensitivities around religion, death, the portrayal of nudity, sex and violence, the use of strong language and others. We will not offend these sensitivities gratuitously.
4.5 Any infringement of an individual’s privacy – a right guaranteed in the constitution – must be fully justified by a clear and strong public interest. It must be carefully considered, and proportionate to the level of public interest. We recognise that people in positions of importance or who have sought a life in the public eye have a reduced right to privacy.
4.6 We will take great care to avoid the possibility of direct harm to a source. Where this seems possible, extra steps will be taken to make sure the source understands the dangers and gives informed consent, and steps to mitigate the danger are put in place.
4.7 We will take particular care to avoid harm to children. While it is important to seek out the views of children, we will not do anything that may expose them to abuse, discrimination, retribution, embarrassment or any other risk. We will make sure that we consult with a parent or guardian about any impact our reporting may have on the child. We will not use sexualised images of children.
5. Reporting methods
We will use open, honest means to gather information. Exceptions can only be made when there is strong public interest in a story and there are no alternative methods available.
5.1 We will identify ourselves as reporters to potential sources. We respect the law, and our reporters are required to have a good understanding of relevant legal provisions.
5.2 We will respect off-the-record and similar arrangements. Agreements with sources must be clear, and are binding on the newspaper and its journalists.
5.3 We do not pay for information.
5.4 We do not allow sources to vet our reports before publication. Sometimes, however, it is advisable for reporters to check back to ensure the accuracy of technically complex information, quotes and the like.
5.5 We will keep detailed records of all interviews we conduct, either in note form or preferably as a recording.
We accept the same level of public scrutiny and accountability as we subject others to. At all times, responses to complaints will be generous, helpful and governed by the need to make sure readers get the fullest information available.
6.1 We will correct errors with due prominence as soon as we become aware of them. Errors online will not be invisibly corrected. Instead, a note with the correction will be posted with the original article.
6.2 In addition to corrections of factual errors, the newspaper offers the following corrective measures:
A clarification, where an article may have lead to a mistaken impression even though it does not contain factual mistakes;
A right of reply, where a full response was not initially included;
An apology; where justified.
These measures can be used in conjunction, and are at the editor’s discretion.
6.2 We accept the jurisdiction of the South African Press Ombudsman.
7.1 Mail & Guardian reviews of artistic work are written fairly, in order to help readers decide what to see and how to understand it. They do not offer an opportunity to degrade or humiliate.
7.2 Columnists and commentators are expected to write fairly and honestly, but this does not suggest a bar on strongly opinionated writing. Fact and opinion will be clearly distinguishable. The newspaper will seek out a wide range of views, including particularly voices not often heard.
7.3 The newspaper, as well as M&G Online, will encourage readers’ involvement in discussion through the letters’ page, responses to articles etc. Criticism of the newspaper and its approach is welcome, but basic standards of decency will be enforced.
7.4 This code applies to all staff. Where there is doubt about how to proceed, journalists must take advice from section heads or the editor.
M&G Editorial code appendix 1: Gifts, freebies and outside interests policy
This policy is designed to manage the issue of gifts and freebies, in order to avoid an impression of conflicts of interest impacting on the reputation of the newspaper and its staff.
1. Gifts and freebies:
1.1 In general, staff are not allowed to accept gifts with a value of over R150.
1.2 Gifts can include cash, items of value, loans, travel, hospitality or other things. Where they are offered for review purposes, tickets to events, books, CDs, DVDs, computer games or similar are not seen as gifts.
1.3 Where practicable and where it would not cause offence, a gift should be returned promptly and with a polite explanation.
1.4 PR handouts that come into the newsroom or to individual journalists must be handed to the managing editor. From time to time, s/he will organise an auction in the newsroom, and the proceeds will be donated to a charity.
1.5 An offer of funded or subsidised travel or hospitality for an editorial purposes can only be accepted with the permission of the editor, who will decide which reporter will take up the offer. Such offers will only be accepted if there is a legitimate news story to write, which the paper otherwise would not be able to afford to cover. Where such an offer is accepted, a note at the end of the report will explain the situation.
1.6 A staffer may not solicit free or discounted food, drink, gifts or similar benefits on the basis of his or her employment as a journalist.
2. Register of interests
2.1 The managing editor will be in charge of a register of interests, where all editorial staff are required to declare any outside interests, including but not limited to:
Family involvements in business;
Mail & Guardian Social Media Policy
This policy is intended to provide our journalists and social media practitioners with guidelines to enable them to make full use of the enormous journalistic potential of social media.
There is no fundamental difference between online journalism, of which social media is a subset, and traditional journalism.
All the same rules and principles apply. Where they differ is in the pressures and form of the outputs. This means that quality can be defined differently on different platforms, but professionalism is judged to the same exacting standards.
This applies whether you are using social media for research, reporting, publishing or interaction with others. But in all instances of your behaviour, both on social media and elsewhere, you are expected to adhere to the Code of Ethics of the Mail & Guardian.
The one absolute to keep in mind is that the Mail & Guardian’s reputation is our most valuable asset, so do nothing to damage the qualities associated with that reputation. These are, inter alia, integrity, credibility, honesty and professionalism.
As a news organisation specialising in investigative reporting, the Mail & Guardian relies on our community of readers to help us produce a better product. Social media allows us to talk to our readers on multiple platforms, and opens up new audiences for our content. The network effect means that our core readers disseminate our content to their followers.
On social media platforms, M&G reporters can source breaking news and story ideas. We can also break news, as well as use social media to verify news. We can pick authoritative sources from a wide pool, and use our community as a sounding board for ideas and opinions.
For the purposes of this document, “social media” includes Twitter, Facebook, blogging platforms, MXit, forums and commenting functions (such as Disqus), and photo-sharing networks and applications such as Instagram.
Social media guidelines
Be authentic and consider your audience. When sourcing material on social media, include your name and, when appropriate, your company name and your title. Readers consume content from people they know and trust, and pass that content on. Be aware that you are part of a community, and subject to the dynamics of that community.
Do not misrepresent yourself on social media. Be upfront about being from the Mail & Guardian. Do not use subterfuge to obtain information, and do not use underhand technical methods (such as subverting security protocols on websites) to obtain information. Although social media are public platforms, and in general in the public domain, be mindful that some people might not fully understand this. If in any doubt, check with people that they are aware that they are, de facto, commenting in the public domain. In cases where public interest is the overriding factor, the expectation of privacy is not as relevant.
The internet is home to much disinformation and false data. Be very aware of this, and make sure you are thoroughly conversant with your subject and source before accepting the validity of information received online. As with traditional reporting, take notes. Take a screenshot of any page you are using in your research — pages can be removed from sites, and then you have no proof. This is especially important when using information sourced via social media. Take a screenshot of Twitter conversations or social network pages. As these are private accounts, they can be deleted by their owners.
Information on social media is still owned, despite the illusion of a liminal free-for-all. Always attribute your source, be it a person or a platform. Readers ascribe different values to different sources, so they need to know, for example, when something comes from a user on Twitter as opposed to physical investigation.
From time to time, your tweets will be aggregated on to mg.co.za. This means the M&G might, in certain circumstances, be legally responsible for what you write. Exercise the same caution, with regards to libel and fairness, as you would on any other of our platforms. This is not just about the law. If you make a comment that is aggressive or nasty, this can taint our reputation, as well as your personal name in the industry.
Online, the distinction between the public and the private is blurred. Inevitably, your private persona will be conflated with your business persona. If the M&G feels that your private online persona adversely affects your ability to work in your professional area, we may change the area in which you work, or discipline you if this is deemed necessary.
Also, remember that data can be mined in various ways. You might inadvertently betray a source, or leak an upcoming scoop, by a seemingly unrelated series of tweets or posts that tell a revealing story when parsed together. Be vigilant at all times. You are responsible for what you say on social media. Social media are not lesser media: you are judged by the same standards as what is commonly termed “traditional media”. You are responsible for what you write.
Respect copyrights and fair use. Always give people proper credit for their work, and make sure you have the right to use something with attribution before you publish. This is particularly tricky with retweeting, and editing those retweets for space. If you edit someone’s tweet, mark it as a partial retweet (PRT).
Remember to protect confidential & proprietary info. You are obliged, contractually, to protect the M&G’s confidential or proprietary information. Employees who share confidential or proprietary information do so at the risk of losing their job and possibly even ending up a defendant in a civil lawsuit. At the very least, companies will seriously question the judgment of an employee who shares confidential or proprietary information via social media.
The bedrock of our authority as a publication is our impartiality. Your profiles, retweets, likes and postings can reveal your political and ideological affiliations. Be very sure that your audience either understands that you are professional enough to put those aside in the workspace, or that those affiliations will not be construed as having an effect on your ability to do objective journalism.
A simple example: If you join a particular Facebook group for research purposes, it would be politic (as well as good research policy) to also join whatever group holds a contrary viewpoint on the same subject.
Exercise good judgment. Your comments will be open to misinterpretation and malicious repostings. Always think before you hit enter. Your comments will be monitored – that’s the nature of social media – and will be passed on to your employer. As our reputation is predicated on dealing with controversial subjects, this will always be a contested area. We have to take a standpoint, but be aware that your standpoint has to be defensible according to the Code of Ethics of the Mail & Guardian.
As with our other publications, our social media are judged on the value we provide to the user. Do not imagine that social media consumers have a less rigid idea of what they want from our publication. The product might be different (shorter, looser tone, etc), but they are still judging by our usual standards.
The separation of the private and the professional
If you have a private social media account (Facebook, Twitter and the like), you are advised to declare your professional affiliation, and include the following disclaimer:
“The views expressed here are strictly personal, and do not represent the views of my employer, the Mail & Guardian.”
Be aware that people will still elide the two, so make sure you say nothing that will damage the Mail & Guardian’s name.
Should you break stories on social media? The general rule is, if you don’t do it, someone else will. You don’t want to scoop our other relevant platforms, but social media platforms are as important in terms of building a news reputation. Where possible, we would prefer to break news with a link to a solid piece of content on our other platforms, but there will be many occasions where you’ll have to preempt our newsdesks. If possible, check with a senior editor on the wisdom of your decision. Generally, the ideal would be that someone checks your social media update before you post it. This will seldom be possible, but make it happen if you are in any doubt.
There’s a delicate balance between whetting our audience’s appetite with teasers about work in progress, and handing a competitive advantage to other news organisations. Here, there are no guidelines possible except those of your professional acumen and common sense. In principle, the Mail & Guardian is committed to as transparent a news agenda as is possible within the constraints of business sense.
(Note: Many of these points are a variation of those found on the excellent Reuters social media guidelines).