KFF Health News is a nonprofit news service covering health and health policy. It is an editorially independent program of KFF, a nonprofit organization focusing on national health issues.
KFF serves as a nonpartisan source of facts, analysis, and journalism for policymakers, the media, the health policy community, and the public. KFF strives to produce information of the highest quality and credibility. This requires KFF, across all its programs, to be, above all else, a principled organization. Making it so is the responsibility of every staff member.
As a program of KFF, all KFF Health News staff journalists are subject to the policies in the KFF Employee Handbook. KFF Health News staff and freelancers are expected to know and practice the guidelines outlined here. Credibility, a news organization’s most precious asset, is arduously acquired and easily squandered. It can be maintained only if each of us accepts responsibility for it. The ways a news organization can discredit itself are beyond calculation; these guidelines do not purport to cover them all. It is best to think of the guidelines as the starting point for discussions of ethics, standards, and practices with your colleagues and supervisors.
It is up to you to master these principles and, beyond that, to listen carefully to your individual sense of right and wrong. In deed and in appearance, KFF Health News journalists must keep themselves above reproach. If you know of anything that might cast a shadow on the reputation of KFF Health News or KFF, you are expected to inform a supervising editor.
This can be an uncomfortable duty; under some circumstances, it can do harm to one’s relationships with others in the newsroom. It is a duty nevertheless.
The standards outlined here apply to all editorial employees and to the work they produce for KFF Health News, whether it appears in print, online, on social media, on television, or on any other platform. KFF Health News journalists who accept invitations to appear on other outlets or in other media forums should be mindful that their remarks require the same care, discretion, and neutrality as their KFF Health News published reports.
When uncertainty arises about the application of these guidelines, the primary goal always should be to protect KFF Health News’ and KFF’s integrity. When in doubt, do not be shy about asking questions or raising issues with your supervisors. A robust, continuing discussion of ethics at all levels of the newsroom is essential to producing first‐rate journalism.
A fair‐minded reader of KFF Health News coverage should not be able to discern the private opinions of those who contributed to that coverage, or to infer that the organization is promoting any agenda. A crucial goal of our news reporting — apart from editorials, columns, criticism, cartoons, and other content that is expressly opinionated — is to be non‐ideological. This is a tall order. It requires us to recognize our biases and stand apart from them, including in social settings and in our own statements made on social media. It also requires us to examine the ideological environment in which we work, given that the biases of our sources, our colleagues, and our communities can distort our sense of objectivity.
In covering contentious matters — abortion, gun control, politics, and the like — we seek out intelligent, articulate views from all perspectives. Reporters should try genuinely to understand all points of view, rather than simply grab quick quotations to create a semblance of balance.
People who will be shown in an adverse light must be given a meaningful opportunity to defend themselves. This means making a good‐faith effort to give the subject of allegations or criticism sufficient time and information to respond substantively.
Investigative reporting requires special diligence with respect to fairness. Those involved in such work should bear in mind that they are more credible when they provide a rich, nuanced account of the topic. Our coverage should avoid simplistic portrayals.
We report in environments — Washington, D.C., for instance — where anonymity is routinely sought and casually granted. We stand against that practice and seek to minimize it. We are committed to informing readers as completely as possible; the use of anonymous sources compromises this important value.
These standards are not intended to discourage reporters from cultivating sources who are wary of publicity. Such informants can be invaluable. But the information they provide can often be verified with sources willing to be named, from documents, or both. We should make efforts to obtain such verification. Relying on unnamed sources should be a last resort, subject to the following guidelines:
- When we use anonymous sources, it should be to convey important information to our readers. We should not use such sources to publish material that is trivial, obvious, or self‐serving.
- Sources should never be permitted to use the shield of anonymity to voice speculation or to make ad hominem attacks.
- Reporters, early on, should consult with their editors on the practice and use of anonymity.
- When it is practical, a reporter should consult an editor before entering into an agreement to protect a source’s anonymity. An editor should know the source’s identity to evaluate the reliability of the information provided.
- An unnamed source should have a compelling reason for insisting on anonymity, such as fear of retaliation or concern about privacy, and we should state those reasons when they are relevant to what we publish.
- The reporter and editor must be satisfied that the source has a sound factual basis for his or her assertions. Some sources quoted anonymously might tend to exaggerate or overreach precisely because they will not be named.
- We should identify sources as completely as possible, consistent with the promise of anonymity. In particular, a source’s point of view and potential biases should be disclosed as fully as possible. For instance, “an adviser to Democratic members of the House Committee on Ways and Means” is preferable to “a congressional source.”
- The possibility exists that a prosecutor, grand jury or judge will demand to know a source’s identity, forcing the reporter to choose between unmasking the source and going to jail for contempt of court. Such situations are rare, and they should not deter us from investigating sensitive or contentious matters.
- Reporters should be extremely circumspect about how and where they store and use information that might identify an anonymous source. Many electronic records, including email, can be subpoenaed from and retrieved by non‐newsroom employees.
- Promises to a source must be kept except under the most extraordinary circumstances. If a source, acting in bad faith, were to succeed in using KFF Health News to spread misinformation, we would make clear to the source that our promise of anonymity is no longer binding. That said, we do not “burn” sources.
- When it is appropriate, reporters should identify the way in which the information was collected — by means of an interview, news release, email, social media post, or a user comment. Comments gleaned from social media or on a website should be used extremely sparingly and only as a last resort, when the content is vital and a source cannot be identified or is not available for an interview.
KFF Health News does not enter into nondisclosure agreements or make deals in exchange for access. When negotiating with publicists, for instance, we do not make promises regarding publication, placement, or angle of approach. That such deals are commonplace does not make them acceptable at KFF Health News. It is permissible to discuss, in general terms, the scope and direction of the coverage we have in mind. It should be clear, however, that the ultimate placement and angle are for reporters and editors to decide. This practice does not prohibit us from agreeing to delay publication of information provided under embargo.
KFF Health News does not pay sources for information.
We live and work in a media environment suffused with hyperbole. It is KFF Health News’ intention to stand distinctly apart from that world and speak straightforwardly to readers.
Fabrication of any type is unacceptable. We do not create composite characters. As a practice, we do not use pseudonyms. In extremely rare cases, the editor‐in‐chief can approve their use. We do not exaggerate sourcing (a single source is a “source,” not “sources”). We do not manufacture, embroider, or distort quotes, whether in text or in the video and audio clips posted on our website.
Superlatives such as “biggest,” “worst,” and “most” should be employed only when the writer has proof. It is the responsibility of assigning editors and copy editors to challenge all questionable claims. The burden of proof rests with the writer; it is not the copy desk’s responsibility to prove the writer wrong.
It is unacceptable to hedge an unverified or unverifiable assertion with words such as “arguably” or “perhaps.” Our job is to report what is true, not what might be. Datelines are statements of fact and are intended to show where a story or other work was principally reported. Visiting an area fleetingly solely to justify a dateline is not acceptable.
We do not distribute articles outside the newsroom before publication. In the event you would like to read back quotations or selected passages to a source to ensure accuracy, consult an editor before doing so. Bear in mind that it is not a substitute for basic fact-checking, such as reviewing interview notes or public records.
In divulging unpublished material, we never cede editorial discretion to any outside party. The decision whether and how to revise an article rests with the reporter and his or her editors. Make certain this is understood by anyone to whom you intend to reveal unpublished material.
Context will sometimes guide the application of these guidelines on precision. There are instances when hyperbole or sarcasm may be used for comic or literary effect. Columnists may use those devices to make a point, as may cartoonists. Such techniques should be employed with care.
First‐person columns are a way to share personal experiences with KFF Health News readers that elucidate problems or issues within the health care system.
Of all the different types of reporting, articles based on data analysis are unusually subject to misinterpretation and distortion. Given that, special attention and precaution are warranted when reporting on or reviewing articles that rely heavily on data. Sources for the data should be clear and interpretation of data should be double‐checked by reporters and relevant editors, including KFF Health News’ data editor, who should always be consulted on any story based on data analysis. The article should describe the method of analysis used and, where possible, link to the original data sets so readers can duplicate the analysis themselves. Reporters and editors should take special care with articles that rely on survey or polling data to make sure the conclusions and insights drawn are valid. They should consider who paid for data collection, as well as the methods employed for both data collection and analysis. Surveys produced by organizations that have joined the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR)’s Transparency Initiative generally provide all information needed to make these judgments.
We conduct our own reporting, but when we rely on the work of others, we credit them. A link in the story — by itself — may not be sufficient credit. When we aggregate content, including when wire reports are used, we should clearly and prominently attribute the source in the narrative.
Attribution is essential to building reader trust. Care should be taken to cross-check facts.
KFF Health News expects its editorial staff to behave with dignity and professionalism. We do nothing while gathering the news that we would be ashamed to see in print, online, or on television.
In general, we identify ourselves as journalists when covering news events. There are some instances when offering such identification is impossible, impractical, or counterproductive, but in no case should a staff member lie about his or her affiliation with KFF Health News. We should deal honorably with people and institutions we cover, just as we expect them to deal honorably with us. Journalists may not use their affiliation with KFF Health News to resolve personal disputes or seek special treatment or personal benefits.
To guard against using what could be considered insider knowledge, as well as for competitive reasons, staff members are prohibited from sharing potentially market‐sensitive information about upcoming stories — including possible run dates — with anyone. This includes friends, family members, significant others, readers, and sources.
Staff members should refrain from providing any financial guidance to readers and sources.
Corrections and Clarifications
When we make mistakes, we quickly and forthrightly correct the record. Readers and staff members who bring mistakes to our attention deserve our gratitude.
A staff member who receives a complaint about the accuracy of our work should inform an editor. No staff member should decide on his or her own that a complaint does not warrant a correction.
Photos and Graphics
Photographs and graphics must inform, not mislead. Any attempt to confuse readers or misrepresent visual information is prohibited.
In photographing news, we do not stage or reenact events. Photographers may direct subjects of portraits or studio work. In presenting such images, we must avoid creating the impression that they were captured spontaneously.
We do not add color, create photo montages, remove objects, or flip images. We do not digitally alter images beyond making minor adjustments for color correction, exposure correction, and removal of dust spots or scratches required to ensure faithful reproduction of the original image. We do not permit the exaggerated use of burning, dodging, or color saturation or the use of photo-editing app filters to manipulate images for publication.
On occasion, we publish artistic or graphic renderings that include altered photographs. Such renderings should be clearly labeled “photo illustration.” Before creating a photo illustration, photographers, photo editors, and designers must obtain approval from the editor‐in‐chief.
Complex graphic illustrations should be similarly labeled.
Editors must verify the authenticity of handout photos and that any necessary permission has been obtained for KFF Health News use. Except in rare instances, credit lines must identify the source of such photographs.
Video and Audio
The use of electronic media by KFF Health News creates challenges that may, on occasion, require staff members to apply the principles embodied in these guidelines in new ways.
To cite one possible example: Journalists should understand that a person who consents to a tape‐recorded interview may not want the recording made available online.
In general, video is governed by the same ethical practices as still photography (see above). Distortion of any type is improper. In editing video, do not insert words or splice together statements made at different times to suggest that they were uttered at the same time; excerpts of an interview or address generally should be presented in the order in which they occurred. If an interview is presented in question‐and‐answer format, the questions must be presented as they were asked. Reaction shots may not be altered after the fact and should be shot in the presence of the interview subject whenever possible. Staging is discouraged and should be used only when essential as b‐roll or for setting a scene.
Video, images, or graphics obtained from outside sources must be clearly identified.
Conflicts of Interest
Guidelines cannot cover every conceivable conflict of interest. If doubt exists, staff members should consult a supervisor. Nevertheless, some principles are clear. Any activity, relationship, investment, or affiliation that reasonably could be perceived as affecting your judgment or indicating a bias may create a conflict of interest and should be disclosed immediately to your supervisors.
Staff members may not enter into business or financial relationships with their sources. Similarly, staff members may not cover individuals or institutions with which they have a financial relationship.
In no circumstance will staff members allow personal investments or financial relationships to influence their news decisions. They may not work on material that could in any way shape events for their own financial gain. Likewise, they may not use nonpublic information obtained by KFF Health News to make personal investment decisions.
Staff members (including all reporters, assignment editors, copy editors, graphics editors, photo editors, designers, and support personnel) may not own individual securities (stocks, bonds, or other instruments) in any company that falls within their beat/coverage areas.
In the case of mutual funds, a reporter must disclose a financial interest to readers whenever writing about the fund.
It is also impossible to predict the news. A company that is not part of our core coverage — and therefore acceptable to invest in today — may become the subject of an article and unacceptable to invest in tomorrow. Thus, the editor‐in‐chief reserves the right to ask any staff member to divest a financial holding if the editor feels it may compromise the integrity of KFF Health News. At the same time, any staff member who feels that he or she may suddenly be in a position that could compromise the integrity of KFF Health News must immediately notify the editor‐in‐chief.
Politics and Our Place in the Community
Journalists at KFF Health News may not use their positions to promote personal agendas or causes. Nor should they allow their outside activities to undermine the impartiality of KFF Health News coverage, in fact or appearance.
Staff members may not engage in political advocacy — as members of a campaign or an organization — specifically concerned with political change. Nor may they contribute money to a partisan campaign or candidate. No staff member may run for or accept appointment to any public office.
Staff members should avoid public expressions or demonstrations of their political views, whether on bumper stickers, lawn signs, blog posts, social media, or online comments. Although KFF Health News does not seek to restrict staff members’ participation in civic life or journalistic organizations, they should be aware that outside affiliations, relationships, and memberships may create real or apparent ethical conflicts. When those affiliations have even the slightest potential to damage KFF Health News’ credibility, staff members should proceed with caution and take care to inform their supervisors.
Some types of civic participation may be deemed inappropriate. For example, a writer is prohibited from joining medical groups.
More broadly, staff members should be aware of the goals and funding sources of organizations with which they affiliate, and should avoid those whose purpose or backing could embarrass KFF Health News or compromise the staff member’s credibility.
KFF Health News journalists are occasionally invited to speak to organizations or to appear on discussion panels. Before accepting, they should consider the purpose of the event and how it might be perceived, discuss it with their editors, and obtain approval. Staff members should avoid situations in which their participation could be construed as endorsement of the sponsoring organization’s interests.
Consistent with KFF policy, staff members should refuse honoraria for appearances as well as charitable contributions in lieu of them. Staff members should be careful during such appearances, including television, radio, and online interviews, not to make comments that stray beyond what they would write in the newspaper or online.
Reporters and editors should always consider — in any public statement or appearance, online or in person — whether their words undermine the ability of this news organization to be perceived as fair and fact‐based.
The activities of family members, companions, or close friends or other personal relationships may create conflicts of interest. KFF Health News recognizes that it has no authority to restrict the activities of spouses, companions, or close relatives of staff members who do not themselves work for KFF Health News.
However, KFF Health News may restrict a staff member’s assignment based on the activities of a family member, companion, or close friend or on other personal relationships. Staff members are responsible for informing a supervisor whenever the activities, investments, or affiliations of a family member, companion, or close friend or other personal relationship could create a conflict.
Staff members should enter their work only in contests whose central purpose is to recognize journalistic excellence. KFF Health News does not participate in contests that exist primarily to publicize or further the cause of an organization. Under no circumstances may staff members accept awards from groups they cover. A staff member who is offered an award should consult his or her supervisor before accepting it. KFF Health News staff journalists are generally not able to accept cash or financial prizes due to KFF’s conflict-of-interest policy, and should consult with the editor‐in‐chief and publisher if questions arise.
In general, it is inappropriate for reporters to vote for awards and rankings in the health care field. Nominations for awards are handled by KFF Health News’ editors. A reporter who wishes to submit his or her KFF Health News work for an award to which we do not nominate should discuss it first with the editor‐in‐chief.
Any staff member invited to vote for or judge an award — including a journalism award — must receive permission from the editor‐in‐chief. No staff member who votes for an award may be part of KFF Health News’ news coverage of that award.
Our principle is that we pay our own way. However, newsgathering often occurs in settings where payment is awkward or impossible. When that happens, staff members should make every effort to reciprocate as soon as possible. Let common sense and good manners be the guide.
It is KFF Health News policy to reimburse organizations that provide meals or refreshments to journalists covering events they sponsor.
KFF pays for travel by staff members on assignment. They may not accept free or discounted transportation or accommodations unless the same discount is available to the public. Exceptions may arise when access to a news event or source can be gained no other way. A journalist covering a military or scientific expedition, for instance, may have no reasonable method to pay for travel. Those arrangements should, however, be the exception, and must be approved by the editor‐in‐chief and publisher.
Staff members are prohibited from accepting gifts from or giving gifts to news sources, potential news sources, or those who seek to influence coverage. When reporting in countries and cultures in which refusing to accept or provide a modest gift would give offense, ask a supervising editor how to decline.
Experience shows that sources and organizations appreciate knowing that journalists from this organization take seriously this principle. As an example, KFF Health News journalists should not take “swag bags” offered from lobbying groups or information groups at events.
The first professional duty of every KFF Health News employee is to KFF Health News. Freelance work must be considered in that light, as it may at times conflict with KFF Health News’s interests, affect its reputation, or distract staff members from their obligations to the organization. KFF Health News staffers are subject to KFF’s conflict-of-interest policy, which generally prohibits accepting compensation for any outside freelance work. Any exceptions to this policy must be approved by the publisher and the CEO.
Subject to those limitations, staff members are free to do outside creative, community, or personal work, including teaching; writing articles and books; giving speeches; or appearing on TV or online venues. However, before accepting such assignments, staff members must obtain clearance from the editor‐in‐chief and publisher.
The editor‐in‐chief or publisher may deny a proposal if a potential conflict of interest or other concern arises, including if sensitive unpublished material gathered by KFF Health News is likely to be shared with an outside party.
Work for organizations that compete with KFF Health News is not permitted. In disputed cases, the editor‐in‐chief determines who our competitors are.
Journalists may not work for people or organizations they cover or who are regular subjects of KFF Health News coverage. Blogs and social media have created potential quandaries for staff members who want to express themselves through those channels. No matter how careful staff members might be to distinguish their personal work from their professional affiliation with KFF Health News, outsiders are likely to see them as intertwined.
Staff members should observe the same principle when contributing to blogs other than their own or to social media.
Social media is a powerful tool for newsgathering and distribution, and we encourage everyone at KFF Health News to use this avenue to engage with and inform our readers. But there are challenges. Every journalist at KFF Health News should realize that social media postings — even on personal accounts — may affect the reputation and work of KFF Health News, our media partners, and KFF. To help you navigate these issues, we are adopting social media standards that, in addition to our KFF Health News Ethics Guidelines, must be followed to ensure KFF Health News remains a respected and independent source of health news.
Most important, be vigilant about your posts and your responses to the provocative comments that sometimes populate social media platforms. Keep opinions about the news to yourselves. If you retweet an opinion piece, do so with a comment about why you find it interesting. Otherwise, in readers’ minds, retweets do equal endorsements. It’s great to engage with readers and that is key to building trust with a robust community of readers — and sources — who can help our reporting. Our best advice is to deploy facts. If someone wants to engage on a story you wrote on Obamacare, do so, but stick to the facts. Never make it personal. Never make it petty. Never respond to insults. Social media is journalism in our office — so it should be professional and fact‐based.
Rather than develop our own long list of social media guidelines, we’ve reviewed those of several other media organizations. We feel The New York Times’ guidelines reflect our standards and values. Please read them and make them your own.
Freelancers Working for KFF Health News
The work of freelance journalists appears in our publications alongside staff‐produced content. Freelancers must therefore approach their work without conflicts and must adhere to the same standards of professionalism that KFF Health News requires of its staff, including these guidelines. It is the responsibility of assigning editors to inquire about a freelancer’s potential conflicts of interest before making an assignment. To help eliminate questions about freelancers, editors should request CVs or résumés from writers or photographers, and there should be an online search by that assigning editor of major news sites and social media sites to assess the freelancer.
These guidelines were compiled after reviewing those of The Associated Press, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. The language in this guide relies most heavily on guidelines from the Los Angeles Times and was reviewed by Karlene Goller, former counsel at the Los Angeles Times, who has advised KFF on these guidelines.