Q&A with Tom Kent: Standards Editor at the Associated Press

Photo credit: AP
Photo credit: AP

Thomas Kent is deputy managing editor and standards editor of the Associated Press (AP), and is responsible for the fairness and accuracy standards across all of AP’s platforms. At the moment, he is also leading an ethics initiative of the Online News Association (ONA), whose goal is to create a kit for journalists around the world to be able to draft their own ethics codes. In the following interview, he talks about the definition of being a journalist, ethics and the current trends in journalism.


As Standards Editor at the Associated Press (AP), you’re responsible for standards of fairness and accuracy across the organization. What does this job entail exactly?

TK: I’m responsible for everything that has to do with fairness, accuracy, balance in our reporting internationally on all our platforms, and that is to say text and photos, and video, and interactives, and radio. I’m also responsible for matters of taste – [as in] is there too much blood in this video, is there too much nudity in this photo, and all of the things that touch on our credibility, including the professional conduct of our journalists – in what they do for AP and in their own lives, and in what they do on social networks.

That’s a big job.

Yeah (laughs), but I don’t do it alone. I work with lots of editors all over the AP, but we thought that it’s important to have one center of gravity on the subject. We didn’t want to get in a situation where we had one policy on anonymity for Asia and another one in Europe, or we had different opinions about bloody photos in South America as we do in North America. So we thought that we should have some center of discussion. It doesn’t mean that our decisions are always exactly the same everywhere, but at least there is some common reference point. I’m sort of an internal consultant, and I give advice based on what I see going on in all our different regions and platforms.

Why is this ethics conversation so important today?

TK: It’s important for several reasons. One reason is that a lot of people are coming into journalism now who were never in journalism before. People have gotten to the point where there’s a very, very low barrier of entry to journalism. Almost everybody can become a journalist – you set up a Twitter account and a WordPress blog, and there you are. You’re a journalist.

It used to be that to be a journalist you had to spend a lot of time, be trained by a big, mean editor-in-chief, who would teach you everything. But now you don’t need the big, mean editor-in-chief. You can go into business yourself any time you want. So there’s a lot of people who are coming into journalism without really thinking about ethics.

Then there’s also the question of very different approaches these days to journalistic ethics. It used to be that in most real, serious news organizations, they tried to be relatively objective and to give equally different points of view, and not have an opinion. I mean it varied; in Europe, there were more opinionated publications. But generally speaking, the idea was to be objective as much as possible. Now there is a much more popular trend toward point-of-view [POV] journalism, where you say ‘I’m a socialist’, ‘I’m a catholic’, and ‘I’m a nationalist’, and this colors what you do. We [the team working on the ONA ethics project] feel that that’s okay, but people have to be very transparent about it, so the reader knows where you’re coming from.

How important is it, in your opinion, to define who’s a journalist and who isn’t?

TK: I think it’s impossible to define a journalist today in terms of where they work. It’s impossible to define them in terms of whether they get paid or not. It’s impossible to define them in terms of how they fit into an organization. In my opinion the way to define a journalist is by their ethics.

If they have a professional approach to journalism, if they accept some basic professional principles, then I think that we have to consider them, within the profession, to be journalists. That doesn’t mean that the laws of one country or another will officially recognize them. Laws are different. But within the profession, I think that people who are serious about journalistic ethics are journalists. And what I mean are very, very basic ethics: tell the truth; don’t plagiarize; if you make a mistake, correct it. That kind of thing – maybe five or six, or seven basic principles …

Then I suppose from the viewpoint of the profession, you’re a journalist. Also, you should be someone who does it regularly – just because you tweet once you in your life doesn’t mean you’re a journalist. If you regularly cover stories and write journalism, then you’re a journalist.

You’re currently working to develop a DIY kit for journalists to be able to create their own code of ethics. What will be some of the main fundamental values it lists? 

TK: The fundamental values include the ones that I talked about – about telling the truth and corrections; having an address – you can to be contactable, so that people know where to contact you for corrections; when you correct something, it needs to be transparent – you need to show that you’ve made a correction. All of these things are fundamental. But there’s not very many of them.

First we have these fundamental values, and then we have an important choice, and that is the choice between objective or point-of-view. That is very important because that choice colors everything. You can still be honest and be point-of-view, but you have to be transparent about it, and understand where you’re coming from.

After that choice, we have about 40 individual subjects and they include, for example: Should you take down stories from your online archive under certain situations, or should you always leave them there? What to do about hate speech – should you quote [it] or should you not? What about photography – is it okay to take pictures of people without their permission if they’re a celebrity? If they’re not a celebrity? Sometimes there are laws, but we’re talking about ethics [now], where we put the laws aside and look at the ethical questions.

What about writing about suicide? What about writing about bomb threats? And for each of these 40-42 subjects, we give arguments on both sides.

So as you work through each of these pages, you can say ‘I believe this’, ‘This is silly’, ‘This is our position’. We hope, first of all, that we’ll hit all the subjects that are important because a lot of people don’t think about their policy on suicide until they have that situation. So we hope to give them a good list of subjects to think about, and then to help them choose what their position is.

We don’t think that they must choose A or B from our menu; if they can think of C, which is better, that’s fine. And actually if they think of C during the crowdsourcing period, we’d like them to put a comment on the page, and we will include C. We …really want several months now of crowdsourcing to make sure that we haven’t missed anything, to make sure that we are being fair, and also that it’s really international … We’ve included, for example – what happens if you work in a poor country, where journalists are paid very little and very irregularly, in that case is it okay to take a gift at a news conference, because your family depends on these gifts to eat?

So we’re trying to recognize that the conditions for journalism are not the same everywhere, and the ethics are not the same everywhere, and to provide a structure to think about this.

What aspect of this entire ethics conversation are you personally most passionate about?

TK: What I am most passionate about is that we not forget that there are at least two legitimate, valid approaches to journalism. One is objective and one is point-of-view. And there’s probably others.

I think that in the excitement these days about point-of-view journalism, people are starting to forget about objectivity, they’re starting to mock objectivity, they’re starting to make fun of it, they’re starting to believe that it’s impossible, and I think that’s very dangerous. I think that there is a place in the world for objective journalism … People should not be swept away by the popularity of point-of-view journalism that they forget that we have this objective model, which is also legitimate. A complete, total objectivity is impossible, I know, there’s no perfect circle in nature … but we still believe in principles of fairness and objectivity.

Interview by Mina Nacheva