Staying Afloat in Murky Ethical Waters

June 1, 2015

Freelance Files

By HANNAH HOAG

For two weeks in 2008, author Hannah Hoag lived — and worked — aboard the CCGS Amundsen, a Canadian Arctic research icebreaker that served as a home base for climate change researchers from around the world. Although the trip was organized by a journalism association, the World Federation of Science Journalists, which covered travel costs and accommodation on board the ship, some media outlets told Hoag they couldn’t consider stories from the excursion.
                                                               Photo: Bennie Mols

Freelancing is a tough way to make a living these days.

When you’re paid by the word, it’s easy to spot the trend: freelance writing rates haven’t climbed in the past decade. Ask a freelance journalist who has soldiered on for longer than that and you’ll hear that today’s rates are on par with those from 20 or, even, 30 years ago.

A host of explanations reportedly account for the pay freeze: Print magazine advertising collapsed; subscription numbers plummeted; online content became free; people wanted to write for “exposure”; the feature well dried up; and the marketplace became flooded with freelancers after the dissolution of staff jobs and environment beats.

It shows up on freelancers’ balance sheets. In 2014, I filed more articles and wrote a greater number of words than in 2013, but I earned a similar income. It all adds up to a lot more hustle for the same pocket change.

This sad state of affairs drives freelancers to supplement their income with better-paying work — and sometimes plunks them into murky waters.

Experienced reporters have transferrable skills that can be put to use in other fields. They research deeply, knit compelling narratives and write quickly — exactly the skills wanted by communications offices, marketing agencies and PR consultancies.

In addition to committing acts of journalism for newspapers and magazines, websites and trade magazines, many credible freelance journalists also sell their editorial services to universities, advocacy groups and pharmaceutical companies. They edit reports, blog and write branded content for companies and organizations that all have a particular point of view, sometimes for double — or more — the hourly journalism rate.

They are richer than the rest of us.

Doing this type of work can grate against some of the ethical principles many journalists learned in school or on the job and adhere to via their professional associations. But it’s up to freelancers to recognize potential conflicts of interest — few publications have outlined their views in ethics handbooks. (The New York Times is an exception. See "Ethical Journalism A Handbook of Values and Practices for the News and Editorial Departments.")

“I do a lot of both journalism and PR, and I just try to always make sure that I’m as transparent as possible,” says Kendall Powell, a freelance science journalist based in Colorado. “But where’s the line? Do I just have to disclose, disclose, disclose and let readers decide for themselves if I’m a shill for the Man?”

‘I never want to be surprised’

Many editors believe journalists shouldn’t write press releases, custom content or contribute to other corporate publications. Even when there is no uncertainty about the integrity of the journalist’s reporting, the perception of a conflict of interest can risk the reputation of the reporter — and the publication.

“I never want to be surprised by a potential problem,” says Adam Rogers, the articles editor at Wired. “The worst thing that could happen would be that I’d be working with a reporter and then I’d see his or her name as the point of contact for a press release, without getting prepared for that possibility.”

Freelancers sometimes parcel their journalism and non-journalism work by theme to avoid any perceived conflicts of interest. They might write advertising and marketing copy for pharmaceutical companies, but dedicate their journalistic work to the coverage of climate change.

What about other scenarios? If you write for a university alumni publication, can you still write about other researchers at that institution for a newspaper or magazine? Not if you follow the rule of thumb that you shouldn’t take money from those you cover. On the other hand, is it reasonable to exclude the work of thousands of researchers because you wrote one $400 news story?

Disclosure, says Rogers, is the first step. It’s important to have the discussion with your editors before it becomes an issue. But it doesn’t necessarily absolve the journalist of his actions. “If you have something that’d need to be disclosed in a story, you should also be rethinking whether you have the right writer,” he says.

Freelancers are now being tapped to write branded content. On one listserv I belong to, a freelance tech journalist said a magazine editor he worked with had asked him to write client-sponsored content (labeled as advertorial) for the same magazine at a higher rate.

It seemed wrong to me. That kind of behavior doesn’t fly in other newsrooms, like Gawker, The Wall Street Journal, Wired, and Quartz, where anyone being paid for editorial can’t also be paid to write sponsored content.

But several journalists on the listserv said they routinely wrote journalistic pieces and sponsored content within the same beat.

‘No strings attached’ invitations

Yet another concern freelancers have to contend with is how to cover the costs of reporting a story. Travel budgets are tight or nonexistent at many magazines these days, yet governments, advocacy groups and conference organizers are keen to have journalists attend their events.

Sometimes these are “no strings attached” invitations, other times the sponsor asks the journalist to write a blog post or publish a minimum number of articles after the outing. Some of these “hands-off” opportunities give freelancers the chance to cultivate sources, do face-to-face interviews with key players and government officials, or provide them with access to remote research locations, for example.

In late 2014, I was faced with these decisions. I was invited to visit a research station in the Falkland Islands, paid for by the Falklands/U.K. governments, but otherwise hands-off. There would be opportunities to spend time in the field with researchers studying environmental change, which I cover regularly, but there was no obligation to write anything.

Shortly after that, I received an invitation to Arctic Frontiers, an annual meeting in Tromso, Norway that covers pan-Arctic science, policy and business issues. Again, the Norwegian government would foot the bill.

Even though I suspected the editors I worked most with would frown at the circumstances, I asked a handful of them for their thoughts. All of those I heard back from told me they could not accept a story that originated from such a trip because it would appear as though the hosting organization had paid for coverage.

I understood their point of view completely and did not take the trips. Yet I know staff journalists and freelance reporters attend these events. If one thing is clear, it is that there is no consensus among editors — or publications — on where the grey areas lie.

As long as freelance rates remain flat, journalists will continue to face ethical dilemmas over the types of work they choose to do.

I described this mess to Paul Voakes, a professor of journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “No matter what happens, make sure that you can stand by what you did, and explain why you did what you did, and not cloak anything you did in the background,” he says. “That is something that was a good moral principle 100 years ago and will continue to be as the technology changes.”

Hannah Hoag is a science journalist and editor from Toronto. Her work has been published in Nature, Discover, Ensia, Wired, New Scientist, and many others. She is a co-founder of Bracing for Impact, a crowd-funded independent journalism project hosted on Beacon, and a contributor to “The Science Writers’ Handbook.”


* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2015. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.