The Freelance Creative

How to Stay True to Your Journalism Ethics in the World of Content Marketing

journalism ethics

Last year, I was invited to lead a content marketing workshop for freelance journalists who, like most of their peers, were looking to diversify and boost their income. While the attendees were clearly attracted to the marketing payouts, many were fretting. Didn’t brand work involve the kind of sketchy ethical compromises their J-school professors had railed against for years?

I was a little surprised to be having this discussion in 2017. As a Contently managing editor, I’ve spent the past two years working with more than a dozen brands on a diverse range of content marketing projects. In my experience, corporate clients are at least as concerned about ethics as newsroom editors. In fact, because they have to work even harder than legacy media to build credibility and thought leadership, they may even be more concerned with ethics than their newsroom peers.

Credibility vs. clickability

When authorship, regardless of byline, is a brand asset, there’s a lot more dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s. Marketers often answer to a legal and compliance team, meaning they’re subject to those bureaucratic fine-toothed combs. I can count on one finger the ethical dilemmas I’ve experienced with content marketing clients over the past two years. In that single instance, I addressed my concern, the client conceded it was legitimate, and we made a mutual agreement to scrap the request.

In that same timespan, I’ve been asked by multiple journalistic editors to make changes that weren’t true to the story (or true at all, in one case). Instead, the changes were intended to improve the clickability of my article. As a result, I’ve pulled an article before publication on more than one occasion.

When in doubt, tell your editor

Journalists interested in content marketing still have to know how to guard against potential pitfalls.

“I’m aware of the potential ethical problems and quandaries, but I do my best to steer clear of them,” said Matt Villano, a Medill School of Journalism graduate who has been a professional writer since 1995. “I only take content marketing and/or sponsored content gigs from companies I don’t generally cover. If the companies operate in the same industries I write about, I’m open with editors on both sides of the fence about what they can and cannot expect from me.”

By acknowledging the risk and surfacing it early, Villano has built a successful freelance career. “Anything short of diversification in today’s market is purely ignorance,” he said. “If we view my freelancing business the same way as one views, say, Ford Motor Corp., journalism is my most popular product line, but I also have stock keeping units in other niches, such as copywriting, content marketing, [and] social media management.”

For writers worried that their journalism career might suffer if editors learn about their “moonlighting,” they need look no further than the Pulitzer Prize Villano won earlier this year as part of a team of reporters who covered the California wildfires.

Everything in its place

As you diversify, maintaining a bright line between branded content and journalism can help you avoid ethical snags. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa with high distinction and honors in journalism from The University of Iowa, Lauren Sieben anticipated a life-long career in the field. She was soon writing for the Milwaukee Business Journal, The Wisconsin Law Journal, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“I never expected I’d leave journalism, as someone who was always very principled about her role in the fourth estate,” she said. But the financial stability of marketing soon called to her. For the past five years, she’s been plying her trade in both sectors.

“I don’t lose any sleep about taking on journalistic and content marketing assignments simultaneously,” she explained. “In most cases, my marketing clients are completely unrelated to the articles and essays I write for publications. If I see any potential conflict of interest, I bring it up to my editor or pass on the assignment.”

Calibrating your own ethical compass and maintaining open communication with all clients is the key to navigating the divide between journalism and content marketing. As Villano put it: “Be honest, be scrupulous, and be open, and your integrity will be evident.”

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