Ethics of Engagement

Note: This guide was made in collaboration with the Gather Slack community, through the use of a survey, discussion, and debate. This guide is a living document and will be updated periodically. We highly value your feedback! Please let us know what is missing or what should be changed/updated about this Ethics of Engagement guide by making suggestive edits on this collaborative Google Document. You can also download a printable two-page version here.

Engagement journalism requires outreach to and participation from community members, most of which are non-journalists. These ethical principles were identified through a collaborative process with the Gather community led by Lynn Walsh. We welcome you to review our process at the end of this guide. These principles are meant to build on and complement work already done by the Society of Professional Journalists, Michael R. Fancher, City Bureau, and so many others. This guide provides suggestions and best practices for how to ethically collaborate with communities while ethically seeking participation and feedback from them.

Involve non-journalists throughout the news process

Engaged journalism is about more than the end product. The entire process should be enriching to communities and individuals. This requires creating trusted, interesting, and valuable engagement experiences for non-journalist participants & recognizing the work done by others.

  • Recognize and give credit to other community groups or individuals who have already worked to gather input and community feedback in the particular area of focus related to the engagement. 
  • Inviting community members to participate in engagement projects where they may perform aspects of journalism like newsgathering or fact-checking is acceptable, but it is recommended training be provided by the news organization/journalist or local journalism school. 
  • Create a valuable experience for individuals and the community at large (For example: by providing training/skills, the community members are receiving something in exchange for their work). Consider how much time people are committing and what it takes to show up to participate. It may be appropriate to consider providing child care, an electronic device or internet service, gift cards or other rewards to make participating easier, valuable and worthwhile. If any payment, gift or service is provided to participants, journalists should disclose that fact when publishing the news content.
  • Consider the technology needs required for people to participate and try to accommodate those who may not be able to participate due to technological or other limitations.
  • Consider the relationship or the relational history the journalist or news organization has with the group of people being invited to participate. In some cases, there may be a need to restore or reconcile a relationship before beginning the feedback/participation process.

Expand accountability & transparency

When collaborating with non-journalists throughout the news process, there are additional needs for transparency and accountability beyond what is expected in traditional journalism ethics. By involving non-journalists with lived experience, journalists can better understand how community members talk to each other about the issue. These insights can provide clarity in how to name and frame the story to drive solutions rather than focus on the problems.

  • Disclose the purpose behind asking individuals to participate or provide feedback. Be clear about what the expectation is for those you are inviting to participate. Provide an end date if you can predict it, along with how much time it will take to participate.
  • Be transparent about how feedback/information provided will be used by the journalist and if people will be notified if something they said will be published.
  • Always work to verify information gathered online or submitted to news organizations by users. Verifying information should also include vetting the source of where the information is coming from.
  • Create a process for reviewing feedback and comments from the community. It is recommended that journalists make that process publicly available so the community better understands what to expect in terms of receiving a response or answer to a question.
  • When reviewing feedback and comments, journalists and news organizations should consider whether the feedback received should lead to conversations inside the newsroom related to how a story was reported or produced. 
  • If feedback spurs a conversation about the editorial process, journalists and news organizations should take community feedback and comments into consideration. Sometimes, this may mean, admitting a story or reporting process should have been done differently or better. If this happens, journalists and news organizations are encouraged to share this with their community and discuss how they will be addressing similar situations moving forward.

Practice care before sharing content from others

When using content posted by users online or provided to journalists in another form, news organizations/journalists should:

  • Ask the appropriate user permission to use the content. Do not assume that a mention or tag on social media provides permission to use another user’s content. Journalists/news organizations should still ask permission before reusing the content on their platforms.
  • Give credit to the appropriate user when using the content. When reusing another user’s content, journalists/news organizations should give credit to the appropriate person each time the content is used and on all platforms.
  • Help to ensure that users understand privacy controls and the reach implications of social media.
  • In engagement spaces managed by journalists/news organizations, the community guidelines/rules should include a clear policy about whether or not content could be used if shared or posted in the engagement space. If the policy does state that content can be used by a journalist/news organization, it is still recommended to follow up with individuals personally, to better determine that the participant has a clear understanding of how the content will be used and has an opportunity to ask for it to not be used. 
  • If a story published by a news organization/journalist contains content obtained through an engagement space or via user feedback, ideally those individuals that provided the feedback and engagement are able to access the content.

Invite participants who provide a range of experience

When inviting participants, journalists should be thoughtful about who is invited and for what reasons, along with the power dynamics of the engagement space.

  • Engagement focusing on specific groups of people can be appropriate if the goal is to use the feedback and their participation to create news content that better serves the entire community, including the particular group focused on in the engagement. If a particular group of people was targeted for engagement reasons, the news organization/journalist is encouraged to share the reasons for doing so publicly. Targeting a specific audience for feedback should not be done solely for advertising, sponsorship or ratings reasons. 
  • Generally, if someone already holds power, they should not also be in a space where journalists are sharing and building power with the community. Journalists and news organizations should consider that other individuals in the group may not be willing to be as open or engaged in these spaces if individuals in positions of power are included. 
  • If people in positions of power (police, government officials, politicians, etc.) are members of engagement spaces, journalists are encouraged to be clear about what their role is in the space. It is also suggested that members in positions of power not be given editorial or decision-making capabilities within the space unless that is the purpose of the group/engagement space. Instead, the engagement space should enable all people to participate with an equal voice.
  • Partnering with community groups, businesses or other organizations to reach your community is generally acceptable. Journalists and news organizations should make sure their values and ethics align with the organization(s) they are partnering with and should always disclose the partnership/collaboration and the intent of the project and relationship, especially if there is money exchanged. If money is exchanged, be sure to be clear about who has editorial control.
  • If the engagement space is part of a collaboration (like with a community group), make sure all involved are clear on expectations of moderation and editorial/decision-making roles. Those expectations and roles should also be communicated to everyone in the engagement space.

Steward welcoming engagement spaces

Journalists should take care to minimize harm in engagement spaces.

  • When developing community guidelines, journalists and news organizations should be ready to address whether or not they will be deleting content or removing people from the space if violations occur. Removing content or individuals from an engagement space is at times appropriate. If content or individuals are removed, it should be done according to the guidelines in place. Journalists and news organizations are also encouraged to explain when and why the removals take place.
  • Journalists and news organizations should be prepared to make edits and changes to community guidelines. This may be necessary as the group evolves, as new members are added, as the purpose of the engagement space changes or as participants suggest or recommend them. When it comes to community guidelines, journalists and news organizations are encouraged to be open to feedback and suggestions from participants on what should be included, changed or deleted.
  • Once an engagement space is created, journalists should:
    • Be transparent about who is in the space.
    • Create guidelines/community rules for the space and make them readily available for those in the space and publicly available if appropriate.
    • Consistently enforce the guidelines and community rules.
    • Have a moderation strategy for the space and be transparent about what that strategy is.
    • Disclose who will be responsible for moderating and how often/long moderation will take place.
    • Disclose how long the news organization or journalist will be monitoring the conversation space/asking for feedback.


Take a closer look at the ways we researched and collaborated with our Slack community on figuring out how to ethically practice engaged journalism.

The original proposal was to organize three to four lightning chats allowing for open discussions around ethical issues facing journalists working in the engagement space. Due to COVID-19 the proposed lightning chats were morphed into discussions held on the Gather Slack workspace. 

The topics selected for discussion, feedback and debate were selected through a survey of the Gather community completed in February 2020 and discussions with Gather advisory committee members. The survey received a total of 73 responses. Survey participants answered questions related to four main areas: Participate, Collaborate/Co-Design, Advocacy and Use of Content.

When responding, survey participants were asked to answer the questions as if it were the ideal, most ethical solution they thought should happen. The purpose of the questions was to capture what the Gather community felt should be happening and not necessarily what is currently happening in newsrooms.

The questions were also purposely worded to elicit a yes/no or an agree/disagree response. This provided an opportunity to see where the community generally agrees, and where there is more disagreement or nuance.

It was important that the individuals involved in this process were representative of the Gather community, had a variety of experience and included people from diverse backgrounds. To gain a better understanding of who participated in the survey, several questions were included to learn about who the respondents were. Those questions asked about the following:

  • Journalism experience
  • Type of newsroom/newsroom position
  • How their work fits into engagement
  • Gender
  • Race/ethnicity

The Gather team, along with myself, also did outreach outside of Gather to reach people for their feedback. Some of the organizations contacted included:

  • Society of Professional Journalists
  • National Association of Black Journalists
  • National Association of Hispanic Journalists
  • Asian American Journalists Association
  • Native American Journalists Association
  • Radio Television Digital News Association 
  • The Association of LGBTQ Journalists

In addition to answering questions through the survey, Gather community members were encouraged to submit additional feedback, including potential ethical situations that should be discussed. After the survey was closed, the results were used to create ethical scenarios that started and helped guide the conversation on Slack.