26th March 2024
By Wendy Collinson

Why should media organisations do an ethical audit?

Leila Bičakčić
Director of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIN)


The first time I heard of the Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI) was at the Ethical Journalism Network’s conference in Istanbul – one of the panels brought a presentation of the new tool by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which would shine a new light on the dire image of journalism around the world and provide an opportunity to re-invent new age journalism based on ethics.  This new tool was created with the intention to bring back to life what ethics is all about – trust-worthy journalism aimed at providing unbiased information free of political, economic or any other influence. That is what got me interested: the organization I founded and managed for almost 20 years was created on those exact principles – to provide unbiased information to citizens to help them make educated decisions. Yet we at the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIN) were aware that our approach to journalism is different from what is currently being applied in practice, particularly among commercial media outlets in the country and in the region (and around the world, for that matter). For a while, we were hoping for a mechanism, a tool, a universal principle that would be a checklist for media outlets around the world to standardize their business operations and streamline the application of professional standards.

The Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI) is a standard for the trustworthiness of news and information. The JTI aims at a healthier information space. It is developing indicators for the trustworthiness of journalism and thus, promote and reward conformity with professional norms and ethics. The Standard was designed and drafted by industry professionals representing major media outlets, as well as professional organisations and non-Government Organisations (NGOs) to promote journalism by adherence to an agreed set of transparency standards. The Standard is intended to be a voluntary, leading benchmark of media self-regulation and good practices for all those who produce journalistic content. Launched in April 2018, the JTI Standard is now available for usage by media outlets, but also for other stakeholders like advertisers, platforms and distributors, as well as regulators to provide an enabling environment for authoritative sources of information. It is generally accepted that conformity by media entities with this Standard is evidence of good practice with respect to ensuring transparency through their controls and processes.

What is the Journalism Trust Initiative?

Leila Bičakčić, Director of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIN)

CIN went through the process in 2022, finalising the certification process in early 2023. We were the first media organisation in the Balkans to go through the whole process and get the certificate. The mere fact that we were pioneering this good idea into the media landscape in the Balkans makes me proud, but more important was the fact that our first evaluation revealed we were, in fact, doing very well: “Overall, CIN’s rating was assessed as Superior, with a score of 100%.

While we scored maximum with our first exercise, the report did provide a list of recommendations to follow up and advance before the next round of evaluation. It stands as a reminder that excellence is a result of hard work, but also a constant striving to improve and be better, do better and achieve better results. 

The process of certification is defined by several steps: JTI self-assessment is the first. It is a lengthy questionnaire consisting of 17 chapters and about 130 questions, meant to give an overview of policies and practices applied in the newsroom. Some questions are more general, but then it turns into more in-depth issues of dealing with procedures behind the use of freelancers/correspondents, the use of audience-generated content or dealing with inaccuracies. A big portion of the questionnaire is dedicated to conflict of interest and procedures to handle potential conflicts of interest, safety protocols for the newsroom, as well as individual journalists and correspondents. While it might look difficult and lengthy, this self-assessment exercise should be viewed as an opportunity to check what procedures newsrooms really have, what should be added and/or updated. It is a perfect opportunity to look into yourself and check whether you are really practicing the talk – are we as good as we say or think we are? We used it as an opportunity to update our policy manuals and reporters’ handbook, to review some old practices and to put on paper new procedures we were applying in practice (but had not got around to filing them in a document).

After submitting the self-assessment, the next step is the audit. It is an independent assessment by people who are not journalists and do not work in newsrooms to verify your self-assessment – is your newsroom as good as you presented in your overview? That is probably the hardest part of any process. If you have never been exposed to audits, particularly system-based audits where auditors are looking into professional side of your business and verify your compliance with international standards, you might view this part as intruding, sometimes even violent. Auditors will keep on insisting on more documents, on more proof for something you might think was proven already or you feel is self-explanatory. Along with the self-assessment, newsrooms are obligated to provide ‘proof of’ statements, which would be rated against the questionnaire: manuals, documents, access to web pages and platforms where organizational documents are being kept, etc. We went through several different phases of the audit: desk review (review of self-assessment and documents submitted); assessment findings through several lengthy calls, where we went back and forth proving and proving again that procedures in place are written in manuals and are in line with JTI standards; and finally the exit interview, in which we were presented with the findings.

And finally, the price, the weakest link to any process. JTI certification is expensive! It is a serious investment newsrooms are committing for, and it is probably the biggest obstacle in the process. The initial audit‘s cost is the highest as it requires an in-depth overview of procedures and documents. Follow-up audits should be a less expensive but still significant budget item that requires severe commitment and planning, particularly for smaller newsrooms. The additional cost is buried in the fact that, at the time CIN went through the audit, the only certified auditors who could have conducted the audit were based in Australia and working for Deloitte. Set aside that Deloitte is one of the most expensive audit houses in the world, Australian pricing standards did not provide much negotiation room for lowering the price.  

At the end, it was an inspirational process. We all learned a lot about ourselves and our newsroom, but it also made us do our homework: we were forced to look inside ourselves to check and check again how well our procedures are documented, well balanced and fair to everyone, and how much of our pride for CIN is based on facts. Once you get the score, it makes you extremely proud and joyful, knowing all the efforts you put into creating a professional environment did not go unnoticed. A couple of observations to consider: 

  • first and foremost is related to funding – as I already mentioned, this is an expensive tool burdensome to newsrooms, particularly small ones. While the original idea was to link JTI certification to advertisers and make them use JTI as a tool to direct their funds only (mainly, at least) to certified outlets, it is not (yet) happening. That is making it even harder for newsrooms to justify and dedicate funds for certification, particularly in the globally dire financial situation in media. If possible, a dedicated stream of donor funding for this purpose, particularly for small and non-commercial media, would popularise JTI even further (fulfilling the goal of the exercise) 
  • auditors – making Deloitte the only audit company capable to conduct audits is not going to make process more available. Further, by having only English-speaking auditors will not make the process available to everyone: it is not just about the communication in audit process, it is about having all documents and manuals/handbooks available in English. If having bilingual documents available in newsrooms is not part of the regular practice, this might turn into a lengthy and (again) expensive drill. 
  • Recognition – it is necessary to create a strong campaign around JTI to make it appealing and desirable for newsrooms. For this tool to reach its goal, it is necessary to significantly increase number of certified outlets. It is necessary to work with all stakeholders, country by country, to ensure that the JTI is recognised, promoted, and required. Otherwise, it will remain a good toll no one is aware of.  
Leila Bicakcic

Building Trust in Media in South-East Europe and Turkey: Phase 3

This UNESCO project, supported by the European Union (EU), is aimed at fostering media ethics, rights-based regulation of digital platforms and online media, as well as adopting Media and Information Literacy (MIL) policies and integrating them into formal education. As one of the partners in the Building Trust in Media in South-East Europe: Support to Journalism as a Public Good project, the Ethical Journalism Network is working on strengthening media accountability and transparency through sustainable self-regulation mechanisms. For more information on the resources and about the media who have completed the ethical audits, please click here.


Main image: Zagreb, Croatia – SEPTEMBER 16, 2014: View of rotation Koenig Bauer machine in Printing house. Credit: DarioZg/Shutterstock