For Freelancers, Whose Ethics Matter?

A memo sent yesterday by the New York Times suggests an opportunity for freelancers to review their practices for ethical soundness. The memo urged freelancers to revisit the Times’s ethics policy and to be wary of areas particularly ripe for potential conflicts:

  • Work for companies or organizations that The Times may cover.
  • Undisclosed ties between the writer and people or institutions mentioned in an article.
  • Lobbying, advocacy or political activities or contributions related to the area of coverage.

This raises the question: Whose ethical standards do freelancers follow? More often than not, the answer is probably “their own”—and a grasp of ethics can rely heavily on a writer’s professional path. They’re learned, not innate. And unless a freelancer establishes a long-running relationship with a particular publication, it may be rare that he or she ever sees an employer’s ethics policy—if the employer even has one in writing. (Smaller publications in particular may overlook this.)

This is unfortunate because, perhaps more so than journalists tethered to one employer, freelancers may be at greater risk of wading into ethically murky situations. They often cover a variety of subjects for a wide range of clients—somewhere along the way, wires may get crossed, and unexpected conflicts could surface just as a byproduct of all the sources, employers and interests being juggled.

Periodically thumbing through ethics codes such as the Times’s may not be a bad idea for a freelancer, just to get a sense of potential pitfalls. The Project for Ethics in Journalism offers this compendium of codes from various news organizations.