Frequently Asked Questions


The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists is a free service to professional journalists seeking guidance on ethics issues.

What is AdviceLine’s mission?

Our mission is to help individual journalists reach informed ethical decisions, and to contribute to the greater discussion, understanding and body of knowledge regarding ethics and journalism. We aim to be an influential force in that effort.

How can journalists contact AdviceLine?

Call toll free 866-DILEMMA (866-345-3662), or use the contact form at

When calling, why should I leave my phone number?

Helping you think through an ethics question involves give and take, and that’s usually easier in a phone conversation than by email.

If I am on deadline, should I call the hotline rather than just leave an email?

Yes. The AdviceLine respondent on call ordinarily will get your hotline call quicker. Email messages to AdviceLine follow a different path and are often slower to reach a respondent.

Are my conversations with an AdviceLine respondent confidential?

All AdviceLine conversations are confidential when they begin. But before the conversation concludes, the AdviceLine respondent will ask you if it can be shared with other members of the AdviceLine team for their education or used for other educational purposes. You will decide how you want it handled.

Who answers calls to AdviceLine?

AdviceLine has a team of ethicists who teach ethics at the university level. Calls dealing specifically with ethics are not answered by journalists, although journalists might answer questions about the news media.

Does AdviceLine have working partners?

AdviceLine’s professional partner is the Chicago Headline Club chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Its academic partner is the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

When did AdviceLine begin taking calls from professional journalists seeking guidance on ethics?

The hotline began operating in January 2001.

What is the most common type of ethical problem encountered by journalists?

Conflicts of interest. An editor, for example, learns that the city hall reporter is having an affair with the mayor and wants to know how best to deal with that. AdviceLine often gets calls asking if it’s a conflict of interest for editors and publishers to join local civic groups or chambers of commerce.

A blogger wants to know if it’s ethical to aggregate reports from many internet sources. Is everything on the web public domain for use without permission?

Attribute information obtained from the internet or any other source. Otherwise, it can be plagiarism or copyright infringement.

Is it ethical to give favorable news coverage to local advertisers?

Favoritism in news reports is unethical. Beware of “advertorials” — that is, advertising in the guise of news.

Is it ethical to question people without telling them that you’re a reporter and that their remarks might appear in print?

No. Don’t do that. Journalists should always identify themselves.

Should publishers consent to requests to remove previous reports from digital archives?

In general, no. Archives, both print and digital, serve as historical records of community life and activities.

What should an editor do about staff reporters who are dating news sources, or become romantically involved with them?

Reporters who become involved with their sources cannot be trusted to be impartial or neutral toward those sources, thereby harming the credibility of the media company they work for. It also is a conflict of interest. Media companies should adopt policies that govern the conduct of reporters. They can be forbidden to date news sources, or removed from covering that source.

Is it ethical to identify children or victims of sexual crimes in stories?

In most cases, no. Recently, though, some victims of sexual crimes have insisted on being identified so they can bring charges against sexual predators.

Is it ethical to publish April Fools’ stories as a joke?

Usually, journalists risk their credibility by publishing false information. Readers might not consider that funny.

Should journalists go undercover to report a story?

Generally, no. It should be considered in the public interest  only after traditional methods were tried and failed. Journalism should be transparent, rather than deceptive. Journalists criticize those who lie, cheat or steal. They should not resort to practices they normally condemn when others do it.