Mission statements can also address the core values that will guide coverage decisions. Are your editors committed to focusing political coverage on the issues, rather than relaying the daily slurs from politicians? In rapidly changing news situations, will you publish unverified (identified as such) information or remain silent until the facts can be absolutely verified? Do you think it’s important to look for positive trends as well as gloomy developments? (The Christian Science Monitor’s declaration says he strives to report with “compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive purpose.”)
Is the purpose of your journalism simply to cover the news without passion? The Washington Post declaration says he strives “to report the news, not to do the news.” Or are you working for a specific outcome? The Journal of the World Press said it aims to “create conversations, open minds and change laws and policies in the communities we cover”. Do you think your images should show, without blinking, the true horror of war and disaster? Or, for the sake of the dignity of the victims and the sensitivity of the reader, will you avoid photos and videos that show bloody and helpless people?
Are you determined to get more diverse voices and images in your coverage? Have you decided to report on issues and neighborhoods that are often neglected? Which? These can be stated specifically in a mission statement.
A mission statement can be a permanent part of a newspaper company’s “About” page. Alternatively, it can be declared (and updated) from time to time in editor columns.
A mission statement isn’t just for readers. It can be a daily guide for the writing itself. If it indicates that your political focus is problem-oriented, it helps editors confidently play out a political story above the latest sniping on Twitter. This can help your editors select news agency articles that reflect your topic’s priorities.
A mission statement also sets the stage for subsequent accountability. At the end of the year, editors can ask if their coverage of women’s or gun issues was really as in-depth as their statement had promised. They can see if they’ve really highlighted any political issues on some nasty tweets.
Creating a mission statement can be a fascinating project in a newsroom, leading to in-depth discussions about the organization’s goals (beyond, in most cases, making money for its owners). It’s a good topic to invite comments from the public.
Obviously, no mission statement can address all of the issues raised in media coverage. Statements may change based on current developments, changing audience preferences, and editors’ perspective on their responsibilities. Detailed ethical guidelines should be included in a separate code of ethics.
But mission statements can go a long way in unifying decision-making in a newsroom, telling readers what to expect and creating your own criteria for accountability.
Thomas Kent is the former Associated Press standards editor and consultant. This article is based on a presentation during a course on Essential Skills for Newsroom Executives. Our next session is in April at Poynter.