Ethical dilemmas

By Ada Petriczko, Lukas Rapp and Andreas Rossbach.

While working in a cross-border journalism team, you may come across ethical dilemmas both within your team and involving your project.

For example, is it justifiable to pay a source? Should you name the accused before they are found guilty? Is it OK for a reporter to manifest their political inclinations? These questions relate to the very core of journalism practice—they touch on the notions of accountability, independence and fairness. And the answers to them will vary from person to person and from culture to culture. Such differences can lead to challenging situations within a team.

We are a group of journalists and photographers from Poland and Germany who have put together this toolkit, based on the experiences of the Reporters’ in the Field alumni and input from experts in ethics. We hope it will help you navigate the ethical dilemmas you might encounter on your cross-border project.


Six questions with four possible answers each and a plethora of ethical dilemmas. Often there is more than one solution, sometimes there is none. Choose the answer(s), which you think are ethically justifiable. Good luck!

1. Would you choose a story…

a) in which the sources are so scarce or irreputable that it is hardly possible to establish any facts?
b) from another language, then adapt it to your country and rewrite it?
c) from a low-key, local media outlet and make it big?
d) from your local area, knowing that - though your objectivity may be compromised - it will be easy for you to get access?

2. Would you form a cross-border team with…

a) a friend who doesn’t speak the local language, nor know the topic, but whom you trust?
b) a local activist, who is not a journalist, but has experience in the specific field?
c) another journalist who specializes in the subject, but with whom you do not get along too well?
d) a gender counterpart to balance the team, even though the person does not have much experience or knowledge in the field?

3. While researching, would you…

a) hack the social media accounts of protagonists whom you suspect of crime?
b) call the family of a protagonist under a false identity?
c) try to get access to classified court files, after the case is closed?
d) download pirated versions of academic books?

4. While reporting in the field, would you…

a) pay for information?
b) befriend a protagonist?
c) stay at a protagonist’s house, if there was no other safe option in the area?
d) work with children (other than protagonists or sources) knowing that paying them may help their entire family?

5. During the editing process, would you…

a) change the names of the protagonists, knowing that it may compromise your accountability?
b) edit out hate speech?
c) mention the name of a terrorist, knowing that it may inspire his followers?
d) disclose any ethically controversial reporting practice you used in the field and explain to the reader why you chose to do it?

6. Would you publish your story...

a) for free, eg. on social media - to make sure everyone can access it?
b) in a media outlet, which has a defined ideological line you do not agree with, but which supports your story and wants it to reach a wide audience?
c) as a separate piece (and not a part of a cross-border story), getting paid without splitting the income with your teammates?
d) in a media outlet, which is part of a corporation that indulges in unethically controversial practices (such as child labour in developed countries, investing in fossil fuels etc.)?

  1. none
  2. b and c
  3. c
  4. c
  5. a, b and d
  6. a


Ethical checklist: What do reporting teams need to consider while working on their investigations?

Based on an interview with Donna R. Leff, professor emeritus of ethics in journalism at Northwestern University, Chicago, USA.

Make sure it is newsworthy
“I cannot think of many unethical stories, but I can think of plenty that are just not newsworthy. Some of the stories which turn out to be unethical – e.g. exposing intensely personal details - if you think about them from a news stand point, there was no reason to tell them in the first place.”

Establish ground rules
“Navigating the cultural differences in a team, especially cross-border, can be a little tricky. You have to find common ground and establish ground rules, before starting to work together. Choose your code of ethics as a team. Think in advance about the notions that can prove problematic. Talk over the core principles of journalism in practice. For example, when do you promise confidentiality? Is it OK for your team to expose your political views? Stay attuned and sensitive to possible differences.”

Be a person first, then a reporter
“Checking your humanity at the door does not make you a good reporter. If your protagonist is hungry, take them to a meal. If they are suffering from an illness, make sure they are comfortable enough to speak. Objectivity as a term is so overrated, I do not even use it. I would say: ‘fair.’ It is fair to buy a hungry person a meal.”

Try to walk in your subject’s shoes
“When I was a young reporter, I covered a story about a boy who had drowned in the Chicago river. I was in a trench coat—corny and stereotypic, but there I was—holding a reporter's notebook, scrunched over the body. Years later, when I became a parent, I had trouble with that. Of course, the story had to be written. The boy drowned, the body was recovered—it’s a story. But you should always try to walk in somebody else’s shoes. How would it feel if that was my little boy?”

Provide context
“Journalism is there to make us feel less comfortable. It is not our duty to pick and choose which stories are ‘appropriate.’ You can report the most puzzling stories, as long as you put them in context. We need to cover the people who oppose the Black Lives Matter movement, we need to cover President Trump’s lies. They will not disappear if we don’t do it. Five years ago, it was unthinkable to find a story in the American press about the sitting president’s lies. Now it is a standard. You quote, then you give it a context.”

Don’t make empty promises
“When you offer confidentiality, you are doing that on behalf of the publication, so first make sure your editors are on board. Otherwise you will be promising something you cannot deliver. It is also good to know that if you promise confidentiality in a libel case, then, at least in the US, the assumption of the court is that you do not have a source. Effectively, you will be held accountable for the libel.”


Anonymised case studies from Robert Bosch Foundation’s Reporters in the Field grant alumni, with commentaries from experts.

Ties Gijzel, co-founder at Are We Europe
Donna R. Leff, professor emeritus of ethics in journalism, Northwestern University, Chicago
Aidan White, founder of the Ethical Journalism Network
Ada Petriczko, freelance reporter and editor

Case study 1: Is it ever justifiable to pay for information?

While working on a story about practitioners of natural medicine and magic in Bucharest, Romania, we had an appointment with a celebrity Roma fortune-teller. When we arrived, a few minutes before the start of the interview, she announced that she would not talk to us unless we paid her €500. It was very disturbing, especially as it was the first time the reporter and myself (a film-maker) had worked together, so we did not have a predetermined strategy for dealing with such situations.

Chosen solution
We asked for 5 minutes of privacy and discussed the situation. We decided that—while in general we are against paying for interviews—in this case it could be justified by the fact that we would be exposing fraud. We did not expect to hear anything honest from our protagonist anyway, as she had made her career out of telling people made-up tales for money. We decided to bargain down the price to €50 and tell the readers honestly about the set-up. Back in her room, we presented her with our proposition. She agreed to it and gave us the interview.

Looking back…
I think we did the right thing. We tried to find an ethical balance between indulging the protagonist and missing the interview, which would be unfortunate since we had specifically flown to Bucharest for it. After all, the protagonist was the one and only “Queen of White Magic,” who had told the fortune of Elena Ceausescu—the wife of Romania’s communist dictator—among many others, and came from a family in which women had been fortune-tellers for generations.

One of the main reasons why paying your sources is unacceptable in 99% of cases is that when you do that, the sources usually start telling you what they think you want to hear. Here the case was different, since it was obvious from the start that we would hear made-up stories. Disclosing this decision to the readers provided them with clear information about Maria Campina’s relationship to her work. We did not face any criticism from the readers.

Experts’ comments:

Ties Gijzel: I find paying for information unethical. The role of a journalist is to observe things in an almost scientific way and make information publicly available. You should not get too involved and influence the people or the story. Paying sources is a way of influencing them— there is a strong risk that they will not be themselves during the interview. Plus, imagine what would happen if this became a standard procedure. You want to interview a scientist but he refuses to talk for less than €1000. When the sources start putting a price on information, this makes the journalistic profession impossible.

It is not always black and white of course, but in this case, if you wanted to expose your protagonist as a fraud, you could have written: “She would not talk to us, unless we paid €500.” You would show the same behaviour.

Aidan White: I do not think that paying sources is completely unethical. There are unique situations in which we need to do it. For example, when the sources lose their jobs or when their lives are put at risk as a result of giving information to the media. I know many cases in which sources received money from media outlets in order to pay for their legal fees, because they were prosecuted as a result of talking to the media. That is entirely legitimate, but only when the information given is genuinely in the public interest. It is not right to pay people money for bits and pieces of idle gossip. Some people try to make a living out of selling gossip to journalists. We should not encourage that.

Prof. Donna R. Leff: Paying sources is never justifiable, because it is impossible to later evaluate the information. There is no way of knowing if they collaborated because they needed the money or because they wanted to share the truth. When it comes to whistle-blowers, our job as journalists is not to compensate them, our job is to tell stories. We need institutional tools that support truth-telling. In the US, we have whistle-blower laws that are supposed to protect them. If somebody loses their job for saying something that is true, they can go to court and fight for compensation.

Case study 2: Is it ethical to befriend our protagonists while working on a story?

In 2018, I visited southern Colombia to work on a story about a reintegration camp for former members of The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym, FARC). The FARC was a guerrilla group that fought an insurgency against the Colombian government for fifty years, before it was disbanded following a peace deal in 2016. They were designated a terrorist organisation by several countries, including—up until 2016—all member states of the European Union. We stayed in the reintegration camp for several days and ended up getting along well with the people we interviewed. As we got to know the ex-guerrilleros better, helping them run a bookstore or organise livestock, it was a challenge to keep a distance. We had to remind ourselves that we were journalists and they were ex-fighters. Sometimes it felt as if we had already become friends.

Chosen solution
We kept on asking ourselves: "What if the truth is the exact opposite of what they are telling us?" We constantly reflected on their words and the things they showed us. In the end, we also aligned their stories with the accounts of members of organisations working outside of the camps. Sometimes the stories of the ex-FARC fighters sounded too good to be true, so it was important to get other perspectives.

Looking back…
I feel we handled the situation well. Since our entire reporting was angled from the side of the guerrilleros and their point of view on the past, it was justifiable that we tried to immerse ourselves in the story. However, even though we lived in the camp and had daily contact with the ex-guerrillas (in fact, we still keep in touch), we contrasted their stories with international reports from official institutions to paint the whole picture. We complemented their first-person accounts with data and facts from other sources, and verified whether there was any discrepancy between the two. I would have chosen the same solution.

Expert’s comment:

Ties Gijzel: I do not think this case is a no-go. In an immersive story, you need to earn the trust of your protagonists in order to gain access and understand them. However, as you build up the relationship, the key is to stay conscious and never start trusting (or even worse, pleasing) the protagonists. With friends, we have a subconscious tendency to please each other, but we cannot afford this in a relationship with a source, because it endangers our critical attitude. This case is of course further complicated by the fact that these people were ex-terrorists. Under no circumstance should you become their apologists. Get close to them to hear their story but stay extra critical in fact-checking before you make any conclusions. If you are able to keep this critical, analytical mindset throughout the process, then I do not think becoming friendly with a protagonist is a problem.

One solution would be to work in teams of two, if there is such a possibility. One team member is “the good cop”, remaining close to the protagonists, being empathetic, almost friendly. The other journalist, “the bad cop,” stays critical and makes sure that their team mate is not getting too involved personally. It helps to keep a balance.

Prof. Donna R. Leff: It is better to wait until after the story is published to become friends with your protagonists. If that does not work out, then disclosing a relationship to the reader goes a long way for making it OK. It can be as simple as this: “Look reader, I started reporting on this person, then I helped them and we became friendly. Here’s the information.” This way we stay honest about our subjectivity.

Case study 3: What are the physical boundaries we should not cross with the protagonist?

I was working on a story about a female activist in rural India. It was not an investigative piece, but an in-depth, personal story. I wanted to visit her village for a few days to conduct my research, and she invited me to stay at her house. I accepted the invitation, knowing that being close to her would allow me to understand her better. On top of that, it seemed like a safer option for a young single woman like myself to stay with another woman, than to look for a guest house in nearby villages and commute (especially given that the region was very remote). However, upon my arrival, it turned out that the house was very small, all the rooms very taken by the family, and the woman offered me a place in her double bed, together with her two dogs.

Chosen solution
After careful consideration, I decided to accept her offer. I had lived in India for a while and knew that bed-sharing was standard there as part of the communal, intergenerational lifestyle— especially among women. Also, the protagonist was a mature woman and her proposition was purely practical. She worried that it would be unsafe for me to stay elsewhere in the neighbourhood. At the time, this decision came quite naturally to me, but when I returned to Europe, it hit me how weird it could seem.

Looking back…
I would have chosen a different solution. Even though nothing inappropriate happened and we ended up having great conversations, I think that the closeness we shared influenced my objectivity. I had to keep on reminding myself that I am there to be inquisitive and critical, to ask difficult questions and not only to bring back positive memories and anecdotes. I often felt as if I owed her a favour for being her guest. The relationship remained semi-professional over these few days. She entered into the role of my “auntie”—which is how older women are referred to in India by younger people—giving me advice and affection. I was treated almost like a family member. Maintaining a structure of the collaboration was also a challenge, since I was largely dependent on her daily schedule.

Expert’s comment:

Ties Gijzel: This is a difficult and highly context-specific case. You need to understand the local culture to make a good judgement. It also depends on the goal of the article. Since the reporter wanted to immerse herself in the life of this specific person, the actual physical closeness is not an issue for me. However, the important factor is also the readership—in this case European. Imagine the protagonist posts a picture on Facebook—a selfie in bed together— and it is spread online. This could really distort the credibility of the journalist.

It is hard to imagine that she could not have rented her own hotel room, car, driver, but if sleeping there was unavoidable, then fine. Otherwise, I would always advise to avoid being that dependent on your source. Dependency creates inequality and as a journalist, and you need to have an equal relationship with your protagonists. You can immerse yourself by spending many hours at your protagonist’s home, there is no need to sleep there. Also because, in the end, you do not know your source that well. By staying there, you are making yourself vulnerable to what happens in that house.

Case study 4: In a cross-border team, should we share financial responsibility for each other’s individual mistakes?

We were a team of freelancers working on a multimedia project abroad, when the equipment of one of our team members got stolen. It was a rented equipment worth thousands of euros. The team member had left it unattended in a car in a parking lot. The situation was very unclear, because the car bore no signs of breaking in and there was no CCTV footage in the parking lot. Another problem was that the team member, who rented the equipment himself, did not insure it. Although we had many discussions, we failed to agree on who was responsible for solving the problem: the team or the team member?

Chosen solution
Initially, we tried to find a way out of this situation as a team. Despite having a limited budget, we wanted to help the team member financially. However, we refused to be blamed for his mistake. He never acknowledged it. He felt like the only victim of the situation and would not take any financial responsibility for it. We ended the debate by saying that since there were no signs of a break-in and the equipment was uninsured, there is nothing we as a team can do. Nonetheless, I empathised with him. Although we were in the field only for a week, I completely let go of the editorial project for two days and helped him at the police station, at the rental company etc.

The case is ongoing. It became a formal, almost legal conflict, and I struggled with that a lot. I felt stuck between a legal fight and a human connection.

Looking back…
I believe him. Although the facts spoke against him, I do not think he stole the equipment. I still feel emotional about it. If I found myself again in a similar situation, I would make it clear from the beginning where everyone's responsibility started and ended. This way we would all have the same expectations. I would not change the fact that I supported the team member. We can all make mistakes, but what matters is how we deal with them.

Expert’s comment:

Ada Petriczko: Journalists are vulnerable to this sort of situations because we tend to work on a low budget and we often collaborate with friends, failing to put things on paper prior to the assignment. In this case, the team members would have saved themselves a lot of time and stress by having a clear contract before the project, stating that, for example, they are all freelancers and each person is responsible for their own equipment. Any conflict can turn legal and we need to be prepared to defend ourselves.

Having said that, it is always best to find a human solution. The approach of the reporter is understandable. They felt that they were in this together. The problem was that the team member, who had made the mistake, did not accept any responsibility, so finding a solution that would satisfy everyone was impossible.

Case study 5: Should we grant anonymity to sources, knowing that it may weaken our story?

I was working in a cross-border team on a documentary about the so-called “dollar heroes” from North Korea. These people are sold by the North Korean government to work abroad as bonded labourers or slaves. One of the ethical decisions which we had to make was whether to show the faces of some of the protagonists—in our case, the trafficked North Korean workers in Russia. We knew that from a purely visual standpoint, it would make our film stronger, but we were also aware that our witnesses could be punished for talking to the media.

Chosen solution
We decided to protect our protagonists. We blurred their faces and changed their names and voices. Documenting events in the manner they occur remains a common professional mandate, but in certain instances, such as protecting a vulnerable source providing sensitive information, face-blurring should be used as an important security tool.

Looking back…
The relationship between journalists and their sources is often complex and full of ethical dilemmas. We had to assess the vulnerability of our sources as well as their value as providers of information. Having done that, it became of paramount importance for us to reassure sources that their identity would be protected. The good news is that the protection of sources is recognised in international law as a key principle of press freedom. It has been specifically acknowledged by the United Nations and the Council of Europe. However, providing anonymity is often easier said than done. We cannot be 100% sure if blurring the faces and changing the voices is enough to protect a source. This is why, when making a decision about interviewing a vulnerable source, journalists should always consider the possible impact of it on the protagonists’ lives.

Expert’s comment:

Ties Gijzel: For me, this is a black and white case. You should always provide anonymity when the protagonist’s health or security is in danger. The form of the project does not justify unethical behaviour. Even if we are talking about a very visual story, in which facial expressions can make or break the project, a creative photographer can find ways of going around the limitations he or she encounters. Sometimes that can become the strongest element of the story. The photographer can prove her or his talent by coming up with ways of showing somebody’s character without exposing their face.


1. Long Read:

“Information in the Slow Lane:” Aidan White, founder of the Ethical Journalism Network, in conversation with Ada Petriczko

“Journalism has no passport, it doesn’t recognize borders. The principles of journalism are the same across the world. There are 400 different codes of conduct in the world, but if you examine them closely, they all boil down to the same 5 core principles: accuracy, independence, impartiality, humanity and accountability.”

“Censorship is not a good way to combat ignorance. We can help people confront difficult facts, without encouraging them to be fearful or uncertain about the world they live in.”

“The internet gave people an explosion of opportunities to talk to one another and say whatever they want publicly. The problem is that, for many people, it also blurred the boundaries between journalism and free expression. Free expression leaves no room for restraint. Journalism based on self-restraint and moral values is not only a public good, but a public necessity.”

“Ethical journalism requires time. Ethical journalism is thinking journalism. A rush to publish is OK on Twitter or Facebook but journalism needs to go back to the slow lane. It may take us more time to get our stories out, but when we put them out, they will be accurate, truthful, honest and useful to the public.”

“Good journalism, like a good art gallery, needs to be seen as a public good.”

Read the full interview

2. Aidan White, the founder of the Ethical Journalism Network, explaining the 5 core values of journalism in detail:


1. A list of questions on ethics which journalists should ask themselves while working on a cross-border story

Source: The Poynter Institute for Media Studies The Poynter Institute is a research center and a think tank dedicated to journalism. The following list was devised for covering stories on sexual assault, but it is universal enough to serve journalists in other ethically challenging subjects.

  • What are my ethical concerns?
  • What organizational policies and professional guidelines should I consider?
  • How can I include other people, with different perspectives and diverse ideas, in the decision-making process?
  • Who are my stakeholders—those affected by my decision? What are their motivations? Which ones are legitimate?
  • What if the roles were reversed? How would I feel if I were in the shoes of one of the stakeholders?
  • What are the possible consequences of my actions? Short term? Long term?
  • What are my alternatives to maximize my truth-telling responsibility and minimize harm?
  • Is there an important part of the story which I am still missing?
  • Can I clearly and fully justify my thinking and my decisions? To my colleagues? To the stakeholders? To the public?
  • What will I get out of it? Are my intentions clean?
  • What is my mission as a journalist?
  • Which alternative best serves my journalistic purpose?

2. Some useful resources to set your ethical compass

At a time marked by conflicts, inequality, disinformation and most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, ethical journalism in the public interest has never been more important to counter the polarized public debate online.

As commercial organisations and governments seek to manipulate news, profit-hungry social media platforms undermine quality journalism, and political propaganda and hate speech masquerade as truth, media organisations, NGOs and individual journalists across the globe are campaigning for a media environment which embraces the core values of journalism—truth, independence, accountability, impartiality, and the need to minimise harm.





About The Authors

Ada Petriczko

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Lukas Rapp

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Andreas Rossbach

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