GroundUp Ethics and Style Guide

Last updated: 17 April 2024

This guide’s purpose is to help reporters and editors write and publish articles that are accurate, fair, ethical, in the public interest, and an easy, undistracted reading experience.


  1. Truth and accuracy

    1. Do not intentionally publish false information.

      Lying in a news report breaches the trust between a publication and its readers. Any journalist who intentionally attempts to publish false information will be banned permanently from working for GroundUp.

    2. Publish based on the best available evidence.

      1. We often cannot be sure of the truth. But we can obtain and assess the available evidence. If the evidence is poor or ambiguous, we should say so.

      2. When there are conflicting accounts, if practicable we must try to determine and assess the evidence. If not practicable we should fairly present each account.

      3. When evidence comes to light that changes what we have previously published we should either publish a new story or update the old one.

  2. Crediting others

    1. No work by others may be used without crediting them.

    2. We will not work with any reporter who commits plagiarism.

    3. It may be sufficient to link to a source or it may be necessary to explicitly cite the source. Reporters should err on the side of caution and cite sources, leaving it to editors to decide if a link is sufficient.

    4. It is unnecessary to credit our previous work that has been published on GroundUp, but we should link to it.

    5. Text or images generated partly or wholly by software must be identified as such.

    6. Do not breach copyright – e.g. by using an image or video that has a restrictive copyright – unless there is an overriding public interest to do so.

  3. Fairness

    1. Strive to be as fair as possible in news and opinion articles.

      1. In news articles we should usually get comment from people who are the subject of critical reportage. Here are common situations we encounter:

      2. A novel fact is alleged about someone that casts them in a negative light. E.g. Evidence has surfaced that John pulls the wings off butterlies. We must seek John’s comment on this allegation. Also, we should not report that John pulls the wings off butterflies unless there is evidence that he has.

      3. A fact already in the public domain is repeated. E.g. As previously reported John is suspected of pulling the wings off butterflies. In this case we must report if John has denied or explained this. E.g. The Daily Bugle reported that John denied pulling the wings off butterflies.

      4. A person or organisation makes a public controversial comment. If we report responses critical of this comment we do not have to go to the person or organisation to get their response, so long as we accurately and fairly present their original comment.

      5. We usually do not seek the views of participants in a court case we are reporting from the papers or court hearing, so long as we report the case fairly. This can be done by presenting the arguments of both sides in the case.

    2. A statement that injures the reputation of someone is defamation. It is a defence against defamation to show that the statement is likely true based on current evidence and in the public interest.

    3. Avoid prejudiced language. Treat people and groups with respect, but without shirking from publishing disparaging information about them that is in the public interest.

    4. Journalists have to be fair in all public forums, not only where their story is published. When giving interviews with other media or posting on social media, we must strive for the same standard of accuracy and fairness as we would on the GroundUp website.

    5. Correct errors.

      1. We should correct mistakes as soon as we are alerted to them or become aware of them.

      2. Substantive errors should be noted so that they are listed on GroundUp’s corrections page.

      3. Our main republishers must be notified of important corrections.

      4. Apologise if a mistake has hurt someone’s reputation or dignity, or caused harm.

    6. Avoid false balance.

      1. If the evidence for something is overwhelming there is no need to present a contradictory position. The following examples relate to science but the principle applies to articles besides science.

      2. It is established that the earth approximates a sphere. We do not seek the views of flat-earthers for an article on geography or astronomy.

      3. It is established that HIV causes AIDS. The views of AIDS denialists are not sought for an article on HIV.

      4. It is established that the global mean temperature is rising due to human activity. We do not seek views that contradict this for an article on climate change.

    7. Do not confuse opinion with fact.

      1. Usually news articles should not contain editorial comments or journalists’ views. But exceptions can be made.

      2. Editors and reporters should express their opinions in an understated, modest way. We have greater reach than most but we have no special moral or analytical powers. Sometimes, because we have reported extensively on a subject, we may be in a position to express a valuable opinion but we should do so with caution.

    8. Avoid or disclose conflicts of interest.

      1. If you or a family member stand to benefit directly from the way a story is told, ideally another reporter should cover the story. But if this is not possible, a conflict of interest should be disclosed. When in doubt, err on the side of disclosure.

      2. No journalist may accept a bribe for doing a story. We will not work with a journalist who is caught doing this.

      3. GroundUp does not pay for information.

    9. Reporters must identify themselves and that they are reporters except for the rare occasion where they are doing an undercover assignment.

  4. Privacy and protection of vulnerable people

    1. Do not publish people’s home addresses, ID numbers or telephone numbers unless there is a compelling public interest to do so.

    2. Do not publish the names of rape survivors without their permission.

    3. There is much debate about when it is acceptable to publish the names or photos of children. This is our policy:

      1. If the parent or guardian gives permission we may publish an identifying photo of a child or the child’s name.

      2. But if the story is about a protest of, for example, learners, and the learners are under 18 but leading the protest, we may publish their names and photos.

      3. Do not publish the names of children charged with or found guilty of crimes, unless there are exceptional circumstances.

    4. Protect the confidentiality of sources who request it.

      1. We should not disclose the names of people who confidentially provide us with information. Journalism depends on whistleblowers and members of the public having confidence that their names will not be disclosed beyond the reporters and editors working on a story, if they request anonymity.

      2. There are limits to this. A source cannot provide self-incriminating information and expect us not to report it. Also a source that intentionally and substantially misleads us may, on careful consideration by both editors and reporters, be outed.

    5. Avoid publishing gratuitous violence.

      1. Videos or photos showing the bodies of dead people, or depicting extreme injuries or violence should only be published if there is a compelling public interest to do so.


Off-the-record vs anonymous


If a source says the information provided is off-the-record, we may not publish it (unless we obtain it another way). It can only be used to increase our own knowledge of a subject, perhaps with the aim of focussing an investigation.

If a source says the information provided is anonymous, we may publish the information but we may not identify the source.

Many sources may not understand the distinction and it is important to explain it to them.


Anonymous sources


It is not ideal to quote anonymous sources to support a claim. E.g. an anonymous source confirmed that John pulls the wings off butterflies.

There are rules of thumb, for example only publishing if three independent sources make the claim. The problem is sources thought to be independent of each other often turn out not to be, and one first-hand source is better than a multitude of hearsay ones.

Using anonymous sources too often creates a media culture in which it becomes too readily acceptable.

Sometimes we have to publish a claim based on anonymous sources, but it should be done sparingly and with care.


Writing styles differ across publications and change with time. They are not set in stone. In many cases styles are simply a matter of taste. We have a style guide so that there is consistency across articles but readability is more important than consistency. The recommendations here may be ignored for the sake of readability.

  1. Use British spelling.

  2. Use less rather than more punctuation.

  3. Prefer short sentences to long ones.

  4. Omit needless words (from Strunk and White).

  5. Prefer lower case to upper case. Exceptions: the Constitution but constitutional, Parliament but parliamentary debate, Minister of Health but health minister, President Ramaphosa but the president, the Post Office (the institution) vs a post office (a specific one). But the court not the Court, the state, not the State.

  6. When City is capitalised it refers to the municipality of the city.

  7. Capitalise abbreviations. E.g. TAC, NEDLAC, COSATU, HIV, AIDS.

  8. On first use spell out in full with abbreviation in brackets. E.g. Treatment Action Campaign (TAC).

  9. There is no need to spell out the following: AIDS, ANC, DA, EFF, HIV, KZN, PRASA, SAPS (but police is preferable) , TB, UCT, VAT, because they are in such common use. Also Hawks is preferable to Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation.

  10. Use double quotation marks. Single quotations are used for quotations within quotations and short phrases.

  11. Follow a singular possessive apostrophe after an s with another s. E.g. the boss’s viewpoint is …

  12. Leave a space before and … after an ellipsis. (This allows our software to more accurately count words.)

  13. Leave a space before and after parenthetical dashes. (Same reason as above.)

  14. Headlines and subheadings do not usually have fullstops. They have minimal punctuation.

  15. Resolution of disputed spellings: Bo-Kaap, Dunoon, Mitchells Plain, toyi toyi, magistrates’ court.

  16. Use forename and surname on first use. Use only the surname on subsequent use. Use title on first use if it’s not Mr/Ms. Sometimes use the title before the name. E.g. Judge Dredd.

  17. Shorten long titles and positions. E.g. Mayco Member Joe Bloggs instead of Mayoral Committee Member Joe Bloggs. If a mayco member or cabinet minister has multiple portfolios in their position, just use the one most relevant to the article.

  18. We spell it van der Merwe, not Van Der Merwe.

  19. Don’t indicate a person’s age unless relevant to the story.

  20. For bullets at the top of a story use short full sentences and in general stick to three.

  21. We use sex worker instead of prostitute, immigrant or foreign national instead of foreigner, disabled people instead of the disabled, person who uses a wheelchair instead of wheelchair-bound, poor people instead of the poor, public money instead of taxpayers’ money, land occupiers instead of land invaders. A building hijacker is someone who is not the owner of the building who extorts rent from the residents.

  22. We usually edit quotes for sense and grammar.

  23. Avoid using sic. It’s usually patronising and petty. Rather correct the grammar if practical.

  24. Dates are written 4 January 2023 or 4 January.

  25. Time is written as follows: 7:14am, 9pm. 12am is midnight. 12pm is noon.

  26. Numbers are written as follows:

    1. Zero to ten are spelt out.

    2. Decimal separator is a point: 3.14.

    3. The comma is used to separate thousands: 123,456,789.

    4. Hyphen to separate number and millions or billions: 3.2-billion.

    5. Use the percentage sign: 11%.

  27. We use the metric system.

  28. Avoid false precision. For example, 2,371 people applied for a house is better written as: More than 2,300 people …, or nearly 2,400 people … . This is particularly important with decimal places after the point. Media articles often have more decimal places than needed, misleadingly conveying to readers that something is known with greater precision than it is.

  29. Convert foreign currencies to rands in parenthesis next to the foreign currency amount.

  30. Photographs and videos should be done as follows:

    1. Landscape is usually better than portrait.

    2. Captions should be full sentences.

    3. Either credit each photo as Photo: name of photographer or, if all the photos in an article are by the same photographer, credit the first photo as Photos: name of photographer.

    4. If the byline indicates who the photographer is, individual photos don’t also need to be credited.

    5. Make sure to indicate special copyright conditions if applicable.

    6. A previously used photo should be credited as: Archive photo: Name of photographer

    7. Only the following modifications to photos are allowed: scaling, cropping, sharpening, contrast and other lighting changes, and rotating (the whole photo, not a portion of it). Identifying information of people or objects may be blurred if judged by the editors to be prudent, so long as it is indicated to readers that this has been done.

    8. People whose faces are close-up in a photo ideally should be identified with both their forename and surname.

  31. Diseases and germs are not usually capitalised, but their abbreviations are: tuberculosis, TB, human immunodeficiency virus, HIV, diabetes, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, AIDS. For now Covid is an exception.

  32. Scientific names of medicines are not capitalised (e.g paracetamol) but brand names are (e.g. Panado).

  33. Tenses should be consistent throughout an article.