Ethics. It’s a tight line to walk. Journalists live on trust and reputation.
One ethical mishap affects all of us and the ever shrinking public trust.
The biggest ethical issue is coming to terms with what it means to be “unbiased.” Picking and choosing what projects you want to work on is a luxury, but now it comes at a greater price.
Many beginning freelancers struggle the first year or two. Let’s face it, freelancing is a tough path to pick, but there isn’t a glass ceiling. And like in sales, the harder and more efficient you work, the more profitable you will become.
At SPJ’s recent national conference in New York City, New York Times Assistant Managing Editor Allan M. Siegal stated in one of the sessions that in the coming months, anyone who wishes to freelance or is already actively freelancing for The Times will have to fill out an electronic questionnaire stating all affiliations and other employment in recent years. The results will be turned over to departmental editors to make sure “we can be sure we avoid conflicts of interests in making assignments.”
Siegal said, via e-mail, that the change was prompted while The Times investigated the consequences of Jayson Blair in the summer of 2003.
“We heard a lot from readers and staff members about inconsistencies and lack of clarity in the way various stringers and freelancers were being employed by bureaus and departments,” Siegal said. “We decided that we would be able to vouch for our integrity across the board only by learning of the specifics.”
Siegal said for some Times sections, such as Travel, this has been a long-standing practice. For other sections, this is new. The current contracts, aside from granting The Times online rights and various other rights, require stringers and other freelancers to comply with the company’s Ethical Journalism handbook — www.nytco.com/pdf/NYT_Ethical_Journalism_0904.pdf. In this handbook, Section 14, deals with outside contributors, which holds freelancers to the same standards and guidelines as staff writers.
On the whole this is a good thing because it demonstrates the value of freelancers in the eyes of Times. But it also means that it’s up to the freelancer alone to follow the letter and spirit of the guidelines.
In addition to the obvious, such as accepting free gifts, this means a writer cannot own stock in an industry he or she covers. A book editor cannot invest in a publishing house. A health writer can’t work for a pharmaceutical company. A Pentagon reporter can’t invest in mutual funds that specialize in defense stocks.
In a sluggish economy such as today, many freelance journalists also take on contract public relations assignments.
Siegal’s advice for this situation and many other ethical dilemmas is fitting.
“(Freelance journalists) should keep their professional endeavors scrupulously insulated from one another, and they should put themselves in the position of an editor who values his or her publication’s integrity and reputation above all,” Siegal said. “Above all, they should steer clear of any suspicion of concealment.”
Ethical dilemmas happen on all levels. For freelancers, it can be especially hard. We don’t have a corporate credit card, and we don’t get paid mileage unless we finagle it in a contract.
Travel writer Michael Luongo faced such a dilemma when he wrote for Our World magazine. Luongo stayed in a luxury rainforest resort in Australia that the magazine arranged.
Luongo said his overwhelming impression of this place, which a customer would pay more than $300 a night, was not good.
He was quickly surprised by the enormous tiger pattern of cockroaches that lived in the room and streamed along the walls, making their way into his luggage where he had food.
“There was no escape from them, and all I could do – since the place was a suite – was lock myself in the inner room and blast the air conditioner at high to keep them from attacking me,” Luongo said. “All the rooms were like this in the hotel since it was a jungle lodge, but again, it was a luxury place.”
Once home, Luongo told his editor about the situation.
“He said I could not mention the cockroaches because he would lose advertising, but I argued no one should ever stay in the resort until they fix the problem (which the hotel said I am the only one who ever complained which could not possibly be true),” Luongo said.
He included the cockroach information in his story and told his editor it was up to him if it was to be cut. But in the end, the magazine folded, so there was no ethical dilemma over what to publish.
“The important thing for me was holding my ground and explaining we need to publish this, and if someone is paying $300 for a luxury hotel, they don’t want the experience I had in the place,” Luongo said.
When it comes to ethics, your reputation is at stake. If you are unsure of which way to go, there are plenty of places to help you find your way. Follow the Code of Ethics used by established news groups such as SPJ, the Poynter Institute, New York Times and Associated Press.
Don’t isolate yourself. Talk to other freelancers via the SPJ message board or journalists in your area.
Tagged under: Freelancing