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Tools of the trade
Why journalism ethics matter

On Your Own: A Guide to Freelance Journalism

> Home

> Introduction: The freelance side of life

Freelance journalism 101

> Vocabulary lesson

> Dollars and sense

> Contracts are essential

> Copyright 101

> Dressing for success as a freelancer

> Staying productive even when you’re not working

Business matters

> Five reasons to pay attention to business

> Contracts and copyright — beyond the basics

> Getting your business organized

> Separating yourself from your business

> Keeping track of business

> Taxing matters

> Insurance considerations for freelance journalists

Making a living

> Time and money

> Budgeting without a salary

> A simple way to boost your pay: Ask

> Retirement planning: Where to stash your cash?

Finding work

> Finding your way to work

> Trolling the web for work

> Inspiration for finding the story

> Brainstorming ideas you can sell

> Pitching your way to a full story calendar

> Tips on freelancing for newspapers

Marketing yourself

> Paying attention to business

> Making a home for your business on the web

> Networking: the key to staying happy and fed

> Business cards help make the best first impression

Tools of the trade

> Why journalism ethics matter

> Four tips for better self-editing

> Selected websites for finding freelance journalism assignments

> Journalism organizations

> Journalism reading list

So-called citizen journalists who write enthusiastically and mostly (or entirely) for free have been a subject of much debate, particularly regarding their effect on freelance pay rates. The fact that many such writers may not understand the nature of journalism ethics is an equally serious concern that affects the way credible freelancers do their work.

Some of these amateur freelancers act as if they are allowed to follow standards that are different from those followed by staff journalists. Consider, for example:

These people used their amateur status to justify their actions. Kevin Smith, past president of SPJ and past chairman of the society’s Ethics Committee, expressed concern a few years ago in an email discussion with SPJ Freelance Committee members that such misbehavior “will only grow among freelancers.”

Citizen journalists also often don’t understand ethical niceties such as attributing quotes properly, confirming basic facts and separating opinion from fact. The same can be said for some freelancers who call themselves journalists but have never worked in a formal journalism environment and haven’t put in the time or effort to learn about professional practices and ethics.

The credibility of all journalists depends, to a large extent, on ethical behavior. Conflicts of interest don’t disappear when a journalist stops working on a staff. A prime guide for good behavior is SPJ’s Code of Ethics, which was rewritten in 2014 to be more inclusive of all publication media. Not following this code is “idiocy,” according to Boston freelancer Jeff Cutler.

“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 outside contributors more often than they did in the past, editors and publishers must educate their freelancers about journalism ethics. Assignments and contracts with new contributors could include a copy of the SPJ Code and a statement that freelancers are expected to adhere to it. This constitutes an efficient and easily implemented first step — and might be all that is needed.

One argument is that freelancers do not have to adhere to the same institutional standards as staffers because they do not receive benefits. But no journalist should bend rules based on job status, says former SPJ Freelance Community Chair Michael Fitzgerald. And ethics have nothing to do with getting benefits.

“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,” Fitzgerald said.

At the core of this conversation is whether media outlets can and should have a say in the lives of their freelancers. That employers of in-house, full-time journalists have such a role has been established and codified, but those journalists who have moved from in-house to freelance work and want to be considered professional should continue being ethical without being told. It should not be necessary to create a separate code of behavior for freelancers who call themselves journalists.

“Being a freelancer doesn’t relieve a journalist of his or her ethical obligations,” said Dana Neuts, SPJ president, a freelance journalist from Washington state. “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.”

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

Contributor: Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

SPJ Code of Ethics, as amended in 2014
Ethics Answers on the SPJ website
Ethics Case Studies on the SPJ website
“On the Basics: Thou Shall Behave — A 4th Commandment for Editors” at An American Editor

Last updated: December 2018

Copyright © 2012-2018 by Society of Professional Journalists. All Rights Reserved.

Questions or comments? Please post them in the Freelance Guide Comments forum of the Freelance Community Board or email fcguide@spj.org. We’ll answer as soon as we can!


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