Ethics and law

Guiding Principles for the Journalist

By Bob Steele, The Poynter Institute for Media Studies.
Used with Permission.

Seek truth and report it as fully as possible

  • Inform yourself continuously so you in turn can inform, engage and educate the public in a clear and compelling way on significant issues.
  • Be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting accurate information.
  • Give voice to the voiceless.
  • Hold the powerful accountable.

Act independently

  • Guard vigorously the essential stewardship role a free press plays in an open society.
  • Seek out and disseminate competing perspectives without being unduly influenced by those who would use their power or position counter to the public interest.
  • Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise your integrity or damage your credibility.
  • Recognize that good ethical decisions require individual responsibility enriched by collaborative efforts.

Minimize harm

  • Be compassionate for those affected by your actions.
  • Treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect, not merely as means to your journalistic ends.
  • Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort, but balance those negatives by choosing alternatives that maximize your goal of truth telling.

Northern Star Ethics Code

This code supplements the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. Together, these two documents are the expected code of conduct for all Northern Star and NS*Radio employees. Note: “Northern Star” refers to the newspaper, the online edition and NS*Radio.


The Northern Star does not accept free travel, accommodations or meals during coverage of events. Journalists must remain free of any perception that sources are buying favorable coverage. For sports coverage, Star reporters, photographers and broadcasters may travel on team buses or planes, or stay in the same hotels as a team, but the Star will pay for employees’ transportation, food and lodging costs.


The Northern Star often reviews new consumer products – music CDs, DVD movies, video games, computer software, books, electronic gadgets, etc. Some are sent by companies’ PR offices and some are purchased locally by the Star. It is important that staff members adhere to a firm ethical policy regarding these materials.

In choosing which products to review or otherwise feature in the paper, use normal standards of news judgment. Do not choose based on what was received for free. That amounts to a company “buying” publicity.

Any materials given to or bought by the Northern Star for review become the property of the Northern Star and not of any individual staff member. Materials are to be stored at the Star office. Editors, at their discretion, may dispose of old material in an equitable way. – Adapted from ACP Model Code of Ethics

Reviews and Event Coverage

Movies: The Star will pay for a ticket for the reviewer. Do not accept free admission.

Concerts: If the Star is covering the concert as a news event, arrange for media credentials beforehand with the concert promoters. We do not need to buy tickets for reporters or photographers. However … If a reporter or critic attends a concert in order to review it, then the Star will pay for that person’s ticket. The reason: There could be public perception that organizers “bought” a positive review by giving the reporter free admission.

Sporting events: These generally are covered as news, and reporters and photographers may arrange for media credentials and free admission.

Abuse of media credentials: If a Northern Star employee is found to have accepted media credentials for a concert, sporting event or other public event, but then attends the event for non-Star purposes, the employee is subject to disciplinary action, possibly including dismissal.

“Free tickets or passes may be accepted by staff members for personal use only if tickets are available on the same complimentary basis to non-journalists.”
– ACP Model Code of Ethics

Promotional events

The Northern Star sometimes will promote concerts with ticket giveaways for readers. Under no circumstances should tickets or other prizes be given to or won by Northern Star employees, their relatives or friends.


“Gifts should not be accepted. Any gift should be returned to the sender or sent to a charity. If the gift is of no significant value, such as a desk trinket, a small food item or a pen, the staff member may retain the gift. As a guideline, if the value is under $10, the gift may be kept. More than one gift in one year, even if under $10, from the same giver, may not be accepted.” – ACP Model Code of Ethics

Use of Northern Star Equipment

Northern Star equipment – computers, software, printers, photo equipment – is the property of the state of Illinois. It may not be used for outside-NIU, for-profit activity by any individual or group. Such use violates university policy and could result in penalties to the Northern Star. Further, the Star sometimes reports on similar, questionable practices within other NIU organizations. It cannot ethically report on these situations if it is not itself beyond reproach.

Northern Star equipment may not be used to produce any publication – print, online or broadcast – which competes or potentially competes with the Northern Star for advertising revenue. Exceptions: Publications or services that enter into formal partnership with the Northern Star.

Northern Star equipment may be used on occasion to assist other NIU offices or outside, not-for-profit entities, but always on the employee’s own time, with the prior knowledge and approval of the editor in chief, and never at times when the equipment is needed for Northern Star work.

Outside Employment and Activities

The Star strives to remain free of any potential conflict of interest – real or perceived.

All managers, and all persons involved in gathering, reporting and/or presenting news and commentary for the Northern Star, are prohibited from serving elected or appointed positions in the NIU Student Association, the NIU University Council, any DeKalb, Sycamore or DeKalb County governmental body, or any other policy-making committee of these organizations. Other employees may be members of the aforementioned organizations as long as
there is no conflict of interest, as determined by the Northern Star Management Board. Such situations should be disclosed to a manager immediately. Employees may be members of clubs, committees or organizations which are funded by the Student Association but do not help formulate SA policy. In conflict-of-interest cases and hiring appeals, the Management Board will make final judgments.

The press serves as an independent watchdog of government. That responsibility will not be compromised.

Star employees may not cover or do other Star business with any organization which they belong to or work for. It is the responsibility of the employee to alert his/her manager or editor of potential conflicts of interest.

Star employees may participate in political rallies, clubs, protests or demonstrations, but this practice is discouraged. Such participation
disqualifies them from ever covering such an event or group. Again, the employee is responsible to alert his/her manager of this potential conflict of interest.


Staff members should not cover or have Star-business dealings with “family members or persons with whom they have a financial, adversarial or close sexual or platonic relationship. Intra-staff dating is not recommended if one person assigns or evaluates the work of the other person or if one is in a position to promote the other to a higher staff position.” – ACP Model Code of Ethics

Drinking While on the Job

“Even though a staffer may be able to drink legally, no or only light drinking in a social setting such as a dinner or reception is recommended to avoid any suspicion by a source or the public that the staffer’s judgment, credibility or objectivity is impaired by alcohol. When covering an event where alcohol is served, staffers should not accept free drinks unless all drinks are free to everyone in attendance. Staffers should avoid the appearance that they are being “wined and dined” by any source or group.” – ACP Model Code of Ethics

Influence of Advertisers

“Editors should guard against attempts made by advertisers … to influence the editorial content of the print or online publication. The editorial staff reserves the right to make all decisions about any editorial coverage an advertiser may get in the publication, including advertising supplements. Readers should not perceive that an advertiser is getting favorable editorial mention simply because the advertiser has bought space in the publication.” – ACP Model Code of Ethics

In addition, business-side employees should, when needed, explain this policy to clients and potential clients.


An inaccuracy is never knowingly published. If any error is found, the Northern Star is obligated to correct the error as soon as possible – regardless of who made the error. At editors’ discretion, corrections may be made to the Web site immediately. Any online story which results in a correction should clearly state that it has been corrected, and how. – Adapted from
ACP Model Code of Ethics

Plagiarism and fabrication

What is plagiarism?

  • Presenting someone else’s work as your own, without proper acknowledgement and/or permission.
  • Using some else’s opinions, word arrangement, design or sequence of ideas without proper acknowledgement and/or permission.

What is fabrication?

  • Making up quotes or information from a real source.
  • Attributing real quotes or information from a source other than the person who actually said it.
  • Making up quotes or information from an imaginary source.
  • Making up information and not citing a source at all.

Any Northern Star employee found to have plagiarized or fabricated content for print, online or radio is subject to immediate termination.

Acknowledgement: The ACP Model Code of Ethics, 3rd edition,
1999, by Albert DeLuca and Tom Rolnicki, Associated Collegiate Press. Excerpts
used with permission.


A Quick Guide to Libel

What is libel?

Libel is any published communication that falsely harms a person’s reputation. It can occur anywhere in a newspaper or online publication. There are four elements, all of which must be proven in court:

1. Publication
Plaintiff must prove the statement was communicated to someone other than the person it was about.
2. Identification
If statement in question doesn’t mentions the person’s name, plaintiff must prove that people who read it believed the plaintiff was the one identified.
3. Harm — also called defamation Plaintiff must prove the statement harmed his/her reputation in the eyes of the community.
4. Fault — one of two standards applies.
a) Negligence: failure to exercise ordinary care. A private person must prove this.
b) Actual malice: knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. A public person or public official must prove this.

How can I avoid libel?

  • Confirm or verify all defamatory material.
  • Make sure that questionable material can be proven true.
  • Be especially careful of arrest reports, damage suits and criminal court proceedings.
  • Watch out for charges, assertions and claims — it doesn’t matter whether you’re saying it or you’re quoting someone else directly. If we print it, we’re responsible for it.
  • Libel can be found not only in news stories, but also letters to the editor, cartoons, classified ads, display ads and electronic publications. Again, it doesn’t matter who’s saying it. If we print it, we’re responsible for it.
  • Words such as alleged and reported are not protections against libel.
  • Be careful of unofficial statements made by police, or by court officials outside the courtroom.
  • Truth is a defense. Good intentions are not. It doesn’t matter how you intended something to be perceived. What courts look at is how it was perceived.
  • Running a correction (the legal term is retraction) is not a defense, but doing so can reduce punitive damages if you’re sued for libel and lose.

A Quick Guide to Copyright

What is copyright?
Copyright protects the owner of an original work of authorship against unauthorized use of his/her work. In a newspaper, this includes news stories, opinion pieces, photos, ads, cartoons and graphics. Generally, it’s OK for a paper to quote short passages from a copyrighted story in another publication, as long as proper attribution is given. The general guideline is that the passage quoted should not be more than 10 percent of the total work.

Copyright does not protect titles, short phrases, slogans, ideas or procedures. It also doesn’t protect facts. For instance, if the Chicago Tribune reports that President Bush has signed a welfare reform bill, and you know that to be true, you can write “President Bush signed a welfare reform bill Monday,” without attributing that information to anyone. But, if the Tribune quotes Bush and you want to use that quote, you have to attribute it: “This will help all Americans,” Bush told the Chicago Tribune.

How can I use copyrighted material?
1. Consent: getting written permission from the copyright holder. When in doubt, do this.

2. Fair use: The Copyright Act gives four factors to determine what can be used without the copyright holder’s permission.

a) The purpose: Are you making a profit off the material you’re using? If so, you’ll be held to closer scrutiny.
b) The nature of the copyrighted work. Some works are closer than others to the core of what the law was intended to protect. A unique work of fiction, for example, will receive greater protection than a news story that is covered by many reporters.
c) How much of the work, in relation to the whole, that you’re using. Again, 10 percent has been the general rule for what’s allowable (remember to attribute it).
d) The effect of the use on the potential market for the copyright holder. Did your use of the material make it harder for him/her to sell the original? If so, it probably wasn’t fair use.

What about cartoons?
Sometimes, cartoonists use images from popular cartoons in their own cartoons. Example: A Star cartoonist depicts the South Park kids joking about an NIU issue. This qualifies as fair use if it passes two essential tests for cartoon parodies:

1. You can’t use more of an original work than is necessary to evoke thoughts of the original in the viewer’s mind. An exact duplicate puts you in risky territory for copyright violation.
2. Your work can’t directly affect the market value of the original work. No one should be willing to buy the parody as a substitute for the original work.

What about the Web?
Everything on the Web should be considered copyrighted, whether it says so or not. Never use text or images from the Web without getting permission first.

A Quick Guide to Privacy

What is invasion of privacy?

Privacy has been defined as an individual’s right to be left alone. A person can claim invasion of privacy based on any of these four violations:

1. Public disclosure of private or embarrassing facts. This is subject to a three-part test. The material must have been:

a) Sufficiently private: known only to a small circle of family or friends. Note: If something appears in court records or is said in open court testimony, it’s not considered private.
b) Sufficiently intimate: personal habits, details or history that the person doesn’t ordinarily reveal.
c) Highly offensive: The information must be such that would humiliate or seriously offend the average person if it were revealed about him/her.

2. False light. You have unflatteringly portrayed — in words or pictures — a person as something he or she is not.

3. Intrusion. This deals with how the information is gathered — trespassing on private property, using an eavesdropping device without permission, misrepresenting yourself to gain access to a place or person. A reporter doing this can be sued even if the story is never published. In a nutshell: When a person is in a place where he or she has a reasonable right to expect privacy, a reporter must respect that right.

4. Misappropriation. Unauthorized use of a person’s name, photo, likeness, voice or endorsement to promote the sale of a commercial product or service.

Protect yourself

The best way to protect against an invasion of privacy lawsuit is to obtain consent from your subject. Tell the person what you’re going to use and how you’re going to use it, then don’t veer from that. And, if you intend to rely on that consent as your defense in a privacy claim, get it in writing and be sure you get it from someone with a legal right to give it.

Landlords cannot automatically give consent for tenants. Neither can school officials for students, employers for employees and parents for children.

The key in obtaining consent is giving the subject a clear understanding of exactly what they are consenting to.

Legal Resources

Quick Help

If you have a legal or ethical question, start by checking with your editor or manager. Then, ask the Star advisers. If they can’t give you an
answer, they’re likely to point you to one of the following:

  • Student Press Law Center: phone (202) 466-5242; e-mail
    Web site: . The site includes an automatic FOIA request generator. Executive director is Frank LoMonte


“The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual.” Read it at a desk near you, or look it up online at

“Law of the Student Press, “published by the Student Press Law Center.

“Freedom for the College Student Press,” by Louis E. Ingelhart.
NIU Law Library

The LDRC 50-State Survey, published by the Libel Defense Research Council. This is updated every year and outlines all developments in each state’s libel law.