Operational ethics
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Operational ethics

Large portions of this guide are based on the New York Times Guidelines on Integrity to avoid reinventing the wheel. Large portions of the text in Quotations, Anonymity and its Devices, Fictional Devices and Photography and Images, and Handling Conflict are taken verbatim from said document.

Our Purpose

Our goal is twofold:

  • To examine rumors and misinformation that has the potential to harm the public, and to ensure that true facts about each case are laid out and presented to the public in an objective, easily digestible manner.
  • To investigate matters of importance to public interest.

We do not claim to be impartial observers; such a thing is impossible. We have skin in the game. Our interest is in promoting truth, nuance, detail and conceptual clarity of matters that affect the welfare or well-being of the general public. This often means (but is not limited to) matters of infrastructure, healthcare, environment, education outcomes, legislature, and non-trivial affairs of the body politic.

We do not strive to break news: we strive for accuracy, and to be as close to the final word on a matter as possible, in the three major languages spoken in Sri Lanka. It is better to be slow and come to the table knowing a great deal than to barge in clutching at straws.

How we approach information

  • In our work, we use a lot of data gathered by third-party organizations, be it government, research units or other news organizations. When we do so, we credit them.
  • Trust nothing and no-one. Neither professional bodies nor academic titles are to be taken at face value. Anecdotal evidence is only evidence of an anecdote. Assemble multiple data points.
  • When tracing information, whether text, image or video, always attempt to establish the point of origin and the date of origin.
  • Research studies, when being considered for inclusion, must first be read thoroughly to examine the sample space and methods used in the study. For this, examine the ‘methodology’ section (and ‘data’ section, if there is one) in a paper. Cite the full study in footnotes, APA style, and mention the sample space in the content itself.
  • Also understand that research papers also indulge in narrative: authors will typically cite other work as evidence or a target for their argument. Check the abstracts and summary sections of the papers cited in the introduction of a paper to see whether the papers cited actually say what the authors claim. Lastly, when mentioning a study, “scientists say” or “a study said” is not enough.
  • Third-party facts or reports cited must preferably be confirmed by another news organization; the best preference is for us to call up whoever is responsible or central to the matter and obtain direct quotes, recorded, regarding the matter. We should clearly distinguish between personal interviews, press statements, observations gathered at events such as press conferences, telephone or email interviews, and written statements.

Attribution to another publication, though, cannot serve as license to print rumors that would not meet our own standards. For example, if a claim is made that 50% of Sri Lankans have experienced credit card fraud, we must locate the source of the claim and examine it to understand how the claim was generated. Did the source interview every Sri Lankan? Did they (as in most commonly done with research) examine a cross-section of the Sri Lankan population? Was this cross-section demographically and geographically representative of the population of Sri Lanka? Is the cross-section actually big enough to account for outliers, statistical errors, and sampling bias?

The highest level of accuracy is generally accorded to a national census: ie: a representative sample that interviews 10% of the population of a country. However, we must be aware that even in such work, ontological errors reduce data or generate misleading results.

Take, for example, the Censuses of India conducted by the British from 1865 onwards. The British found themselves knee-deep in the task of planning and running a country that was, in reality, closer to an entire continent full of different tribes, countries and other social constructs. Starting with the North-West provinces, they began to run a systematic set of exercises to quantify India’s population, noting down everything from age to caste to religion. The British Census-takers logged over 4000 different “castes” by 1931, and then in subsequent Censuses, embarked on the process of reducing the complex and chaotic social interactions of India to a greatly simplified and inescapable 4-caste system built on the Brahmanic system. [1] [2]. Or, take Myanmar’s Census, which consistently refused to count the Rohingya.

The Yale political scientist and anthropologist James Scott describes the actions of a state, when collecting data, as a form of simplification, to make understandable what was previously unique to a particular place or community and mysterious to outsiders. [3]

These state simplifications, the basic givens of modern statecraft were . . . rather like abridged maps.  They did not successfully represent the actual activity of the society they depicted, nor were they intended to; they represented only that slice of it that interested the official observer.  They were . . . not just maps . . . [but] when allied with state power, would enable much of the reality they depicted to be remade.

States are not the only sources that produce flawed maps of reality. Newspapers do it all the time, as do well-meaning activists and researchers, either because they favor a particular narrative, have ontological blind spots, or do not have the budget to sample properly, or simply do not understand how to process information.

“A map,” to quote Alfred Korzybski, father of general semantics, “is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.”

This is not something to be taken lightly. Even with the best or lightest, surveys and reporting can easily reduce the amount of information in the real world to a crude set of variables (thus: inaccurate), and it is almost always outdated by the time anyone gets around to looking at the data (thus: slow). At all times we must be aware of this fundamental nature of data, and interpret accordingly [4].

Quotations

Readers should be able to assume that every word between quotation marks is what the speaker or writer said. We do not “clean up” quotations. If a subject’s grammar or taste is unsuitable, quotation marks should be removed and the awkward passage paraphrased. Unless the writer has detailed notes or a recording, it is usually wise to paraphrase long comments, since they may turn up worded differently on television or in other publications.

The writer should, of course, omit extraneous syllables like “um” and may judiciously delete false starts. If any further omission is necessary, close the quotation, insert new attribution and begin another quotation. In every case, writer and editor must both be satisfied that the intent of the subject has been preserved.

Anonymity and Its Devices

The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers newsworthy and reliable. When possible, reporter and editor should discuss any promise of anonymity before it is made, or before the reporting begins on a story that may result in such a commitment. (Some topics, like criminal justice or national security, may carry standing authorization for the reporter to grant anonymity.)

The general rule is to tell readers as much as we can about the placement and known motivation of the source. While we avoid automatic phrases about a source’s having “insisted on anonymity,” we should try to state tersely what kind of understanding was actually reached by reporter and source, especially when we can shed light on the source’s reasons.

We will not dissemble about its sources — does not, for example, refer to a single person as “sources’ and does not say “other officials’ when quoting someone who has already been cited by name. There can be no prescribed formula for such attribution, but it should be literally truthful, and not coy.

Fictional Devices

No reader should find cause to suspect that the paper would knowingly alter facts. For that reason, we refrain outright from assigning fictional names, ages, places or dates, and it strictly limits the use of other concealment devices.

If compassion or the unavoidable conditions of reporting require shielding an identity, the preferred solution is to omit the name and explain the omission. (That situation might arise, for example, in an interview conducted inside a hospital or a school governed by privacy rules.) If a complex narrative must distinguish among several shielded identities, it may be necessary to use given names with last initials or, less desirable, given names alone (Hilary K.; Ashley M.; Terry). Descriptions may serve instead (the lawyer; the Morristown psychotherapist). As a rare last resort, if genuine given names would be too revealing, real or coined single initials (Dr. D, Ms. L) may be used after consultation with senior editors. The article must indicate the device and the reason.

Photography and Images

Images that purport to depict reality must be genuine in every way. No people or objects may be added, rearranged, reversed, distorted or removed from a scene (except for the recognized practice of cropping to omit extraneous outer portions). Adjustments of color or gray scale should be limited to those minimally necessary for clear and accurate reproduction, analogous to the “burning” and “dodging” that formerly took place in darkroom processing of images. Pictures of news situations must not be posed.

A credit line is obligatory in all such cases. Occasionally, an explanatory caption may be advisable.

Altered or contrived photographs are a device that should not be overused. Taking photographs of unidentified real people as illustrations of a generic type or a generic situation (like using stock images) usually turns out to be a bad idea.

If you have any question about the appropriateness of an alteration or are not sure how best to make clear to the reader that the image has been manipulated or the scene contrived, consult upstream.

Use of Wikipedia

Unlike older news operations, we consider Wikipedia to be useful. That is to say: it cannot be cited as a primary source, but is a useful way of finding key arguments, texts, data and other sources in a particular topic.

References

[1] Dirks, Nicholas B. (2001), Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-1-400-84094-6

[2] Mann, Michael (2015), South Asia’s Modern History: Thematic Perspectives, Routledge, ISBN 978-1-31762-446-2

[3] Scott, J. C. (2008). Seeing like a state. Yale university Press.

[4] As a mildly ridiculous example, take a viral report (which made it to the BBC) that claimed that men’s beards have more germs than dogs. As it turned out, the study was based on skin and saliva samples from 18 men and 30 dogs at several European hospitals. The researchers were looking for colonies of human-pathogenic bacteria in both man and dog. While trite, it follows that this study is so small as to be only representative of a handful of animals in European hospitals; and it also follows that humans have more human-pathogenic bacteria than dogs would. Full study: Gutzeit, A., Steffen, F., Gutzeit, J., Gutzeit, J., Kos, S., Pfister, S., ... & Orasch, C. (2019). Would it be safe to have a dog in the MRI scanner before your own examination? A multicenter study to establish hygiene facts related to dogs and men. European radiology, 29(2), 527-534.