Why the Ethics of Freelancing Are More Important Than Ever

By Natalie Burg August 12th, 2014

If you happen to click on a handful of stories on The Wall Street Journal‘s travel page about Florence, the Winter Olympics, or gondolas, you’ll come across the following text:

“Three Off Duty travel articles written by freelance writer Akhil Sharma have been removed from The Wall Street Journal’s electronic archives because Mr. Sharma received some free and discounted goods and services, including hotel stays, in reporting these articles.”

Oops. How did that happen? Did Sharma purposefully violate this ethical standard of journalism, or did he not know any better? And considering the earliest of the three stories was published in 2012, how was his lapse not uncovered until June of 2014?

Is it really that easy for freelancers to get away with unethical behavior?

“I want to say no. But truthfully, I have to say yes,” said freelancer Anna Clark, whose work has appeared in The New York TimesPOLITICO Magazine, and the Columbia Journalism Review. “There is a lot of false, distorted, copied, manipulated, and patently unethical material out there.”

While Clark doesn’t believe an increase in the freelance workforce is solely responsible for ethical blemishes—there are plenty of examples of unethical staff journalists as well—she wouldn’t call the two unrelated.

“I do think being a freelancer with the hustle it requires, the very few structured checks in place, ethical norms are becoming more lax as people lose sight of the original purpose of ‘old-fashioned’ standards,” Clark added. “All of this contributes to the problems.”

The buck stops where?

According to The New York Times‘s Ethical Journalism handbook, freelancers are held to the same standards as staff journalists. And The Wall Street Journal noted that Sharma’s behavior was a violation of his own freelancer agreement. While the ethical standards for freelancers might be clear for those who read handbooks and contracts, many writers may not know the ins and outs of their obligations in the fine-print.

Filmmaker and freelance journalist Mo Scarpelli witnessed this firsthand when another freelancer included false details in a story about a woman in Afghanistan for a major news outlet. Scarpelli happened to know the woman from her own work, and immediately spotted what was untrue, so she contacted the freelancer herself, outlining what she’d discovered.

“Stuff like that will pop up on international news and goes unquestioned because the editors are back in New York and D.C., and they’re on a deadline and they’re like, ‘Yeah, I’ll take your word for it that Afghanistan is like this,'” Scarpelli said. “And they would never do that with their own staff.”

In Clark’s experience, some editors have made ethics a rigorous priority. But like Scarpelli, she hasn’t found that to be true across the board. “Other editors, though, move speedily and basically leave me to my own devices,” Clark said. “That means that it’s ultimately up to me to meet ethical standards.”

The real accountability, Clark explained, comes after a story is published. Readers, sources, and fellow journalists will call out ethical issues, just as Scarpelli did by contacting the reporter who had falsified details.

The self-education of ethics

In order to self-police, a freelance journalist must have a sound understanding of journalistic ethics. In many cases, this means self-educating. While Scarpelli learned about journalism ethics at the Missouri Journalism School at the University of Missouri-Columbia and Clark learned on the job at the University of Michigan’s Michigan Daily newspaper, freelancers who have never been in a newsroom or J-school are at a bit of a disadvantage.

“Newsrooms have invested decades—often more than a century—in building up a structure for ethics,” Clark said. “That broad collective habit of approaching stories in an ethical way, to see it done again and again and again by folks working right next to you, having the chance to discuss ethical questions on a day-to-day basis before a tricky situation even happens… these are all the advantages of being an ethical journalist in a newsroom.”

Instead, freelancers must locate and follow their own ethical guides since they typically have limited contact with peers and editors. The Society of Professional Journalists’s Code of Ethics is one major resource, and ethical issues are dissected on an ongoing basis by publications like the Columbia Journalism Review and Poynter.

Even with the available resources, learning journalism ethics is still a lifelong effort. When facing an ethical quandary, Scarpelli will often reach out to mentors. Similarly, Clark will ask the editor she’s working with, research the issue, or ask peers she respects for advice.

If ethics fail in the woods…

Even if most freelancers are capable of policing themselves when it comes to ethics, will accountability be more of an issue as the freelance workforce grows significantly over the next decade?

To quickly squash any dilemmas, Clark and Scarpelli stressed the importance of advocating for guidelines, even when clients don’t provide them. In fact, Scarpelli even protects her right to journalistic integrity when storytelling for NGOs, which may not have to worry about journalistic ethics. She has every organization she works with sign her own ethical policies. And those ethics matter if you want to keep working.

“I think it just comes back on people. In fact, I know it does,” Scarpelli said. “But it’s not like I operate on that basis of fear every day, that I shouldn’t mess this up because I could get found out. I think there is something about the kinds of stories that I’m trying to do that it just would feel really creepy-crawly gross if I did violate ethical things.”

“We are in the business of truth!” Clark added. “I want to be worthy of it.”

Image by Scott
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