We published our ethics policy. Here’s why.

In the news business, an industry uniquely predicated on a broad base of trust, ethics are anything but mundane.

It’s a key part of our promise. Our audience needs to trust how we sought and evaluated truth; they deserve to know that it was obtained without compromise. 

Our sources need to know they will be treated fairly and with respect. 

That base of trust is especially vital for a fledgling organization like ours, one just now beginning to demonstrate that we can fairly cover this community we call home.

We are building the Flatwater Free Press to be as transparent with our audience as we ask institutions to be with us.

With that in mind, and as we add hard news and investigative news to our offerings, we decided to make our ethics policy public.

We took this step so that everyone  — donors, readers, sources and more — can know the rules of engagement. 

Perhaps more importantly, by making it public, we empower everyone to hold us accountable.

I’ve always liked to think journalism ethics are easy. Don’t lie. Treat people with respect. Trust but verify.

But they aren’t easy, not always. Already, we’ve tussled with moral quandaries that have become really fuzzy, really fast.

So we looked around for other policies. During that process, we came across the incredibly detailed policy of the Colorado Sun, a fellow nonprofit newsroom just across Nebraska’s western border. 

The Sun does a lot of things we don’t. They write opinion, they have political cartoons. When we founded the Flatwater Free Press, we quite intentionally chose to avoid all opinion and focus on news. As a result, much of their policy simply wasn’t germane. 

But the stuff that does apply was right on the money. I reached out to Larry Ryckman, their editor, and asked permission to model our policy off their own. He agreed.

Our final product is very much based on the trailblazing work of that organization. We couldn’t be more grateful.

I encourage you to read the whole thing. It’s not terribly long, and it gets to some of the big ideas about why we’re here and how we do what we do. There are a few specific points I think merit special mention.

  • Donors and board members. We have a huge roster of incredible Nebraskans behind us here at the Flatwater Free Press, one quite literally growing every day. We’re honored to have their involvement. But that involvement doesn’t get them any special favors. To be especially transparent, we will disclose the involvement of donors or board members any time they’re involved in a piece. 
  • Anonymity. There may be cases when we need to use anonymous sources. These cases will be rare. Even then, the source’s identity must be known and verified by Flatwater editorial staff.
  • On the record. All conversations with Flatwater staff are on the record by default. That goes doubly for official sources. We do not let sources retroactively place comments off the record or on background. That said, we lend some grace to people who are not used to working with the press.
  • Corrections. When we get something wrong, we will correct it in the story and add a separate note indicating that the change was made. We also track corrections internally — a pattern of inaccurate information is cause for discipline with our reporters, and could lead to severing ties with a freelancer.

There’s an awful lot more to unpack. And I’m sure we’ll add to this over time.

This isn’t just about appearances. Already, we’ve put pieces of this policy to work. Editor Matthew Hansen recused himself from a soon-to-be-published story due to a family work obligation that could be perceived as a conflict. That recusal is comprehensive. As a result, I am working with the reporter on that story directly, and alone. We take pains not to discuss the story in his presence, and he does not have access to the draft.

Likewise, the timing of publishing this policy isn’t a coincidence. For the first few weeks of our existence, we’ve focused on feature stories. It’s important to celebrate Nebraskans doing cool things, and it will remain part of our content mix. 

But those stories don’t often have the complexities of pieces that ask hard questions, involve uncooperative institutions or combative sources. Our new full-time reporters are digging into court cases and arcane databases, filing open records requests left and right and meeting with sources every day. Their stories are coming soon.

When you read those stories, we want you to know how we pursued them.

With this guide, you can.

By Matt Wynn

Matt Wynn is the Executive Director of the Nebraska Journalism Trust, which launched and funds the Flatwater Free Press. He has spent 13 years at news organizations across the country, most recently on the investigative team at USA Today. He lives in his hometown of Omaha with his wife, Sarah, and three children.

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