Journalistic Standards Have Never Been More Vital 

Speculation around the health of Kate, the Princess of Wales, ignited a media frenzy this spring. Newsrooms across the globe found themselves grappling to balance the public’s insatiable appetite for information and the ethics of responsible reporting. Some outlets hastily published unsubstantiated claims, while others exercised caution, adhering to the principles of accuracy, fairness and thoroughness. 

The chaos surrounding Princess Kate’s then-secret medical condition highlighted the pivotal role news standards play within a newsroom. As journalists navigated a minefield of unverified reports, retracted images and tabloid headlines, those committed to upholding news standards found themselves at the forefront of separating fact from fiction.  

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In the fast-paced world of journalism, where information flies at the speed of a click and speculation often outpaces verification, news standards are a critical pillar in upholding the integrity of reporting. Here is how standards teams operate within newsrooms.

What is news standards? 

Whether you have been in the news industry for over 20 years, or are just starting your career, journalists should know the core standards of journalism: Maintain accuracy and fairness. Be transparent with your audience. Verify information and use credible sources.  

Sometimes how to do these things is clear; other times it is not. That’s where a newsroom’s standards department comes in.  

The news standards group oversees and executes an organization’s editorial policies, ethical guidelines and best practices in journalism. They review articles, videos, charts, packages and other forms of content when they may be contentious or sensitive. The news standards team may also provide training and guidance to editorial staff to help them understand and implement these standards effectively.  

Richard Chacón, an NBC News Group standards director, believes that the role of the news standards team is ultimately solving “journalistic riddles.” Having worked as a reporter, producer, foreign correspondent and news director, Chacón said he uses his range of experience to guide journalists through any questions they may have, whether it’s concerning sourcing, context, attribution or fairness. “One of the most important and satisfying things about working in standards is how it draws on all of us on the team, to be empathetic to the people who come to us,” he said.  

While the news standards team issues guidance on individual pieces, they also issue guidance across the NBCU News Group about how to responsibly report on broader news topics, like election coverage or breaking news. Joe Caffrey, an NBC television production specialist, said he has used standards’ guidance on when to blur a graphic image, or when to cut audio that contains expletives. “The standards people are the journalists’ journalists,” Caffrey said. “They really know the ethics and how to keep the story on a factual basis.”

How do standards departments issue guidance? 

When the news standards team issues guidance, it’s a meticulous process that focuses on collaboration and taking into account a story within its context. For example, standards may ask a reporter to attribute remarks to a specific source, instead of stating what was said as if it’s a common fact. Each instance presents its own challenges, from ensuring the use of appropriate language to grappling with more sensitive topics like mass shootings or conflicts abroad.   

Nina Sen, a director of NBC News standards who covers race, class and gender, said every piece of guidance is carefully crafted based on available data on the given topic. 

Before Princess Kate announced her cancer diagnosis, for example, the news standards team weighed which information and viral moments were reportable and fact-based, and which could not be published because they were simply conjecture. “The intention is not to stop the flow of information, but to consider what is simply gossip and what is reporting,” Sen said.  

She explains that there is usually a way to tell the news properly, and that often includes adding context. She said it’s important to talk through options with the reporter and editor of a story to understand the intention behind it. Guidance often takes into consideration not only the facts as they are readily available, but also how people consume the news and what they may infer from the way it’s presented. “We don’t gatekeep,” says Sen. “We don’t air everything on your social feeds, and we don’t stop people from seeing available information. We think about news value, what reporting has been done and how to deeply investigate topics in the public interest.”

What doesn’t a standards department do?

When it comes to determining whether a story should be reviewed by a news standards team, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. While a lighthearted arts and culture piece about Coachella may not need to be reviewed by standards, a deeper investigation into the festival’s impact on the local community may warrant a conversation with news standards to ensure appropriate language and sourcing. Some newsrooms want all stories to go through their standards department. 

“We’re not fact-checkers, we’re not the information center and we’re not social newsgathering. We don’t verify online things,” says Laura Wides-Muñoz, a director of news standards and practices.  “While we do sometimes spot-check information, our focus is ethical issues, fairness, accuracy and transparency. Reporters, editors and producers are thinking mostly about their specific story. We are thinking about that, but also about precedent and how the decisions we make could impact future stories, as well as whether we are being consistent with past coverage.” 

While it may seem intimidating to ask the standards team for guidance, that’s what they are there for. Rather than viewing it as walking into the principal’s office, consider the standards team an important part of the editorial process and keep them informed throughout the reporting process, from inception to finish.  

“Call us or talk with us before you have the story done so that if you’re worried about something, you can resolve it early and quickly, and then it’ll expedite the process,” Wides-Muñoz said.  

And if you ever receive standards guidance to cut, rewrite or add something, sometimes the answer is to simply do more reporting or talk to one more reliable source. Wides-Muñoz says she is always ready to have an open discussion with reporters.  

“Don’t be afraid to push back respectfully, because we are open to outside perspectives,” said Wides-Muñoz. “We want to hear it and we want to discuss it. We’re generally not just giving an edict and walking away.”

Jennifer Garcia

Jennifer Garcia is a student journalist based in New York City and an intern for the 2024 Paris Games at NBC Sports. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism in bilingual journalism. She enjoys reporting on arts and culture and its intersection with business and politics.