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Five ethics ‘best practices’ from community journalists

1. If you overhear something at the grocery store or bank or pick up a great tip while chatting with friends, “go back and talk with the person again” before you use the information, says Cathy DeShano, project coordinator for, a site that gathers news about Madison, Wis., neighborhoods.

She suggests an opener: “It was great talking with you, and I started thinking it would be nice to write about this. Can we talk more? And who else should I talk to?”

2. However you get information, confirm it with both the person who provided it and independently, suggests Alyssa Katz of The Eminent Domain. “They may have the information on great authority or it may just be a rumor.”

Ask, “How do you know this?”

3. Make sure you have correctly heard and understood what was said, DeShano emphasizes. Most mistakes happen not because citizen journalists intentionally distort information or quotes, but because their recall — even when they’ve taken notes — isn’t perfect. Remember the party game “Telephone”?

4. You can offer to read back or e-mail quotes to confirm their accuracy.

Understand that some people may have legitimate fears about being quoted or named, and be open with them about how you plan to use their interviews. Abdulai Bah of People’s Production House says his citizen-journalist trainees often interview undocumented immigrants who don’t want their real names used, so the trainees assign pseudonyms.

Other sites may have different policies to assure anonymity when necessary, but it’s important that your interviewees know how they will or won’t be identified when the piece is published — and that they agree to it.

5. Identify yourself and be open about your role. Citizen journalists are often so much a part of their communities that they don’t even think of announcing their intention to write about or record something. But you can create distrust, or even run into legal trouble, if you do not fully inform everyone involved.

“Always be clear that you are playing both roles — member of the community and journalist,” Katz says, “so there isn’t a sense that you are trying to wield some mystical power” over your sources.

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