Best Practices: The No-Surprises Rule, a Fair and Full Opportunity to Respond

The Best Practice column is an occasional look at foundational best practices in journalism ethics. In this post, we’re exploring the ethical principle of giving subjects a fair and full opportunity to respond to allegations or information about them before it is published.

Often called the “no-surprises rule,” an opportunity to respond means that a reporter should reach out to a subject before an article is published to give the subject an opportunity to hear and comment on what is being said about them in the article, a chance to answer the reporter’s questions, and to offer additional information or context to inform the reporter’s work. 

Determining what is fair when seeking comment requires the journalist to consider:

  • How long should the subject need to respond to the questions;
  • What methods should the reporter use to try to reach the subject for comment; and
  • How many times should the reporter attempt to get in contact with the subject for comment.

How long should the subject need to respond to the questions: The BBC’s ethical guidelines state that the amount of time depends on “the nature and complexity of the allegations, whether or not the allegations were already familiar to the subject of them, [and] whether there is a pressing need to broadcast [or publish] in the public interest.” Plainly put: How much time should the subject need to answer the question? Is it something they’ll know off the top of their head or will they need to scour through old documents that are off-site. The goal is to get the source to hear the assertions and to get comment and information, not to publish without their input and practice gotcha journalism.

What methods should the reporter use to try to reach the source for comment: Journalists should use the most direct mode of communication available to them to connect with subjects and the one that is most likely to reach the person. Even though subjects may have a public social-media account, contacting them in person or via phone or email is better. But what if a subject’s email or phone isn’t publicly available? In that case, get creative. For example, send direct messages via social media, reach out to others who may know how to contact them, or try to meet them outside their place of employment. 

Still can’t reach them? Opt for the “no-surprises letter,” a last-resort effort that lays out the facts and assertions about the person or organization that you’re planning to include in your story and that gives them a deadline to respond. Here’s an example. The letter is then faxed, emailed, delivered to their home or office – any methods that will have the best chance of the subject seeing the letter.  

How many times should the reporter attempt to get in contact with the subject for comment: Depending on the story topic and seriousness of any assertions, journalists also might want to reach out to sources for comment multiple times. Will Fitzgibbon, a senior reporter at International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, says that “a good rule-of-thumb when dealing with uncooperative subjects is to at least be able to show five earnest attempts to obtain comment.” 

“It is not only important to give subjects reasonable time for this response,” Fitzgibbon told the Global Investigative Journalism Network, “but also to give yourself time to follow-up, check factual counter-claims, and potentially revise unfair assertions.”

The more serious the allegations, the harder a journalist should try to reach the subject. The journalism will only be enhanced by their participation, and input from the subject will often help bullet-proof the story.

“We want the work to be fearless, but work that is fearless but not fair does not mean very much, and leaves you vulnerable to attack,” Alix Freedman, global head of ethics for Thomson Reuters, was quoted by Global Investigative Journalism Network as having said on a panel at IRE21. “At best, you’re accused of fake news; at worst, you can have your pants sued off you.”