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Monday, February 6, 2012
Freelance Toolbox

Whither freelancer ethics?

By Ruther Thaler-Carter

So-called citizen journalists who enthusiastically write almost (or entirely) for free and their effect on pay rates for freelance work have been heavily discussed. The behavior of such writers, who may not understand the nature of journalistic ethics, is becoming an equally serious concern — and that concern is extending to some freelancers as well.

Some freelancers are acting as if they are allowed different standards than staff journalists. Recently, one freelancer was fired for taking an active role in an event she was covering. A blogger made personal attacks on an attorney, who took her to court. A hobbyist photographer melded two images into one, which a newspaper unwittingly published.

These people used their freelance or amateur status to justify their actions. Past SPJ president and current Ethics Committee Chairman Kevin Smith has expressed concern in an email discussion with SPJ Freelance Committee members that such misbehavior “will only grow among freelancers.”

This is misbehavior. Freelance journalists are, first and foremost, journalists. Our credibility, to a large extent, depends on our ethics. Conflicts of interest don’t go away when we stop working on a staff.

Freelance journalists should follow the SPJ Code of Ethics. Not to do so is “idiocy,” says Jeff Cutler, a freelancer in Boston. “If a freelancer isn’t held to the same requirements and ethics that a staffer has to follow, then the system is broken,” he said. “We need editors and publications to realize that, whether a story is written internally or externally, all standards must be adhered to and all ethical t’s and i’s should be crossed and dotted.”

Because media outlets are using more and more outside contributors, whether paid freelancers without formal journalism training or interested individuals who work for free, editors and publishers must take the responsibility to educate those contributors about journalism ethics. Perhaps every assignment and contract with a new contributor should include a copy of the SPJ Code and a statement that freelancers are expected to adhere to it. That would be an efficient and easily implemented first step — and it might be all that is needed.

Some might argue that, because they do not receive benefits, freelancers do not have to adhere to the same organizational standards. But journalists should not bend rules based on job status, notes SPJ Freelance Committee Vice Chairman Michael Fitzgerald, a Boston-area freelancer. “I try to apply the standards of the strictest organization I work for to all situations, regardless of whether I’m on assignment for it or not,” he said.

At the core of this conversation is whether media outlets can and should have a say in the lives of their freelancers. Whether employers of in-house, full-time journalists should have such a role has already been established and codified. Those of us who have moved from in-house to freelance journalism and cherish our professionalism should follow that code.

It is vital to relay the commitment to journalistic ethics to freelancers who may not belong to SPJ — or even those who do, but somehow think their freelance status removes them from the ambit of its Code of Ethics.

It should not be necessary to reinvent the wheel and create a similar code for freelancers who call themselves journalists.

Being a freelancer is simply no excuse for not following established professional guidelines for ethical behavior.

“Being a freelancer doesn’t relieve a journalist of his or her ethical obligations,” said Dana Neuts, SPJ Region 10 Director and Freelance Committee chairwoman. “We should do everything possible to avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived, in the course of our work. This is perhaps more important for freelancers, whose identity and potential relationships to a story may not be readily transparent.”

Our audiences deserve freelance journalists who represent the best of journalism, not its worst.

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