Members of the Digital News Publishers’ Association released a code of ethics on October 17. Much like the code of conduct adopted recently by streaming services and digital companies, the DNPA’s ethics code relies entirely on the compliance of its members in good faith. “The object of this Code is to outline high standards, ethics and practices in digital news publishing, and does not constitute any attempt to involve itself in the day to day operations of the publishers — who have complete editorial and content independence,” the code takes care to mention.

The DNPA was announced in September 2018, and despite its name, is composed of traditional media outlets like news channels and newspapers for members. The release of the ethics code came a day after the government handed DNPA members a business victory by limiting the direct foreign investment (FDI) a digital news media company, including aggregators, can get to 26%. This move essentially made it as difficult for digital-only publications to raise funds from abroad as it has been for traditional media.

It’s not clear what was the impetus to create this code. It may be that the government’s affidavit in the Supreme Court calling for regulation of online news media made publishers seek to insulate themselves from government regulation. It is also possible that the code is an outcome of scrutiny into media ethics following the media circus surrounding the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput.

  1. Follow the law: The main condition — just like in the code by streaming services — is to follow existing law. The code seems to take an opportunity to mention that several laws already apply to online content: “Digital news websites follow the laws of the land including the Constitution of India, the over 30 laws relating to the media, relevant provisions of IPC, CrPC as well as the Information Technology Act, 2000, where applicable,” it says (emphasis added by us). It advises members to train their employees on these laws.
  2. Be ethical, don’t defame: The code invokes good journalistic practices, like adhering to “accepted norms of journalistic ethics and practices and maintain[ing] the highest standards of professional conduct”. In addition, it says false information should not be published, and adds, “Pre-publication verification should be mandatory. Defamation should be avoided.”
  3. Intellectual property: The code says that “If copyrighted material is used, then prior permission should be taken and publication must acknowledge moral and ownership rights.” Trademarks should not be used unless rights are obtained, or if usage constitutes fair use. The code doesn’t explicitly advise attribution for news reports that are based on other organisations’ reporting.
  4. Sensational issues and crime: For “sensational” issues and crime, the DNPA says, “Presumption of innocence must be preserved. Comments and speculation on evidence, witness and witness conduct, accused and victim and their respective conduct [is] to be avoided.” The code adds, “Special care [is] to be taken while reporting on sexual harassment in [the] workplace, child abuse, rape, where accused or victims are minors, matrimonial, riots and communal disputes/clashes, divorce and custody cases, adoption matters, etc.”
  5. What to avoid in coverage: The code specifies the following specific things to avoid in news coverage, and guidelines for sensitive subject matter:
    1. Names or identifying details of victims of crime should be avoided
    2. Pictures of victims or their homes should be avoided
    3. Communal conflicts should be covered only after due diligence
    4. “Special care” should be taken when covering “courts and judicial matters”.
    5. Respect should be maintained for privacy, “especially persons not in public life”.
  6. Always publish statements: In two points, the code says that a news organisation should carry comments sent to it by the subject of a news report, and make clear when that comment was added in the post.
  7. Delete “incorrect” reports: While reports containing inaccuracies can be fixed, the code says that “If entire news report [sic] is found to contain false, inaccurate information, the entire article should be deleted.” The code doesn’t advise members to tell readers why a report was retracted.
  8. Intermediary liability? The code has a provision for members who are intermediaries under the IT Act. Intermediaries are generally websites that enjoy protection for having user-produced content that cannot be vetted in real time — such platforms enjoy legal protection, as long as they comply with takedown orders for content.
    • This carve-out is odd, as the DNPA doesn’t appear to have any news aggregators for members, or publishers putting out content they are not in direct control of. This may perhaps be to account for comments appearing on articles, where news websites would indeed be performing the role of an intermediary. Or it could just be some future-proofing in case members adopt editorial policies that allow user-submitted content. In any case, the DNPA only says that if a member is an intermediary, it must follow the law related to it, i.e., appoint a grievance officer and comply with valid takedown orders.

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