Freelance Writer’s Ethical Guide

What I’m listening to: Jungle Love by Morris Day and The Time

I had a conversation yesterday with a writer friend who shares similar opinions. In fact, if I want to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t share my opinion, I’d rather it be in person. Too many people out there with keyboard muscles.

In conversation, my friend and I turned to talking about business. As freelance writers, we’re both bound by ethical standards that we learned in journalism school. To me, ethical, objective reporting in all cases is required and essential. My friend, I know, feels the same way. We know that the majority of journalists, no matter what the current thinking is, are dedicated to bringing the truth, the facts, and the opposing opinion to the masses.

That, to me, is the only way to run a writing business.

There are other ethical issues we as writers must follow. A lot of times, there are gray areas around certain things, and today, I’d like to clear them up the best I can.

Nondisclosure agreements (NDAs): If you sign it, you’re bound by it. You can’t discuss the project or mention the client’s name. Period. Some NDAs will state a specific period under which you can’t disclose anything about that project or company. If it’s not stated, ask. But don’t assume you can say “Oh yes, I worked with Nestle Company or Nike Corporation last year on a top-secret project.” You can’t disclose (hence the name) any part of the relationship unless approved by the company.

Embellishing experience or size of business: I’ve seen both happen. In one case, that freelancer lost a ton of credibility with me (and is, from what I can tell, still stretching the truth). Claiming you’ve done “extensive” writing in one area where you have three somewhat-relevant clips is a flat-out lie. Saying you have had hundreds of clients when the number is more like 40 — stop. If you’re that great at what you do, you don’t need to overstate to get the gig. Be honest. Always.

Facts: In the current world of post-truth and alternative facts, be certain of this — if you don’t have your facts straight the first time, you won’t get a second chance. It’s not enough to have one source, not to me anyway. If you want to make your facts as airtight as possible, locate at least two credible sources of that same information. In all cases, try your best to locate the original source, then look for other sources that back up that same logic. Verify all information — this isn’t just good advice, either. It’s part of the Journalism Code of Ethics I learned in college.

Personal opinion: Most writers know not to frame their own personal opinions as facts. But it still happens, particularly when there are strong feelings or some monetary gain to be had. If you cannot back it up with statistics, then don’t present it. Or at the very least, let the audience know this is your personal opinion.

Don’t embellish for others: You’ve had that client too, I bet. They want you to inflate the numbers, use wording that falsely claims greatness they’ve not yet earned… it’s your job to push back. Warn the client of the repercussions of circulating misinformation. Offer alternatives. Try to guide them toward a better, more truthful way. If they want what they want, you may want to part company. I sure would. If you stick it out, make sure you have it in writing that you’ve both objected to and advised against their direction.

Sources that shouldn’t be: Your new client wants an article on X, and that client you’ve been working with for years is just perfect… stop right there. It is not acceptable to use current clients as sources for articles. That’s a huge conflict of interest. Why? Because you’ve accepted money from the intended source. There’s no separation between you and the client at that point. Even if you’d never promote a client over another source, the perception of wrongdoing is there.

One thing to note: that doesn’t mean you cannot use (unpaid) sources as often as you like. I used a source twice last year, and an editor nearly accused me of war crimes. Let’s not go into how unprofessional the blasting I got was, but stick with the facts — we as freelancers are indeed allowed to use the same source in other work. No one can forbid you to use the source again. And I was more than a little surprised that this editor didn’t understand that. Why you can use sources more than once — you aren’t being paid by the source, you already know if this person has the info your readers need, and you are working for someone else, who may indeed want that source.

Ghostwritten works: You’re just dying to use that credit from that massive project you just finished…wait. Go back to the agreement. Are you allowed to mention it in your portfolio? If there’s no mention in your agreement, ask. Don’t assume it’s okay; most likely, it isn’t. If you’re ghostwriting for a company, you’re being compensated to keep your name off it and your mouth shut. Honor that agreement.

Writers, what ethical gray areas leave you with questions?

What examples of bad decision-making on the part of other writers have you seen?

How often do you face ethical dilemmas or questions from clients?

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  • Paula Hendrickson January 31, 2017 at 12:35 pm

    I’ve encountered two industry trades who provided approved source lists with each assignment. You got it. The “sources” were either advertisers or companies the publication was hoping would become advertisers.

    One of those publishers required writers to give weekly updates about which sources we contacted. I’d email them last (after seeking sources on my own), or call during off hours to leave a message just so I could honestly say I’d attempted to reach them. Occasionally, when I reached a marketing person at a company the publisher wanted to advertise the response would be: “We’ll pass. It would only encourage their sales staff to pester us even more. We’re not advertising with them.”

    Several years ago I ran into a very honest client. It was a company that sold pre-packaged baked goods to large cafeterias. They needed copy about their muffins. I suggested a word like “delicious” or “tasty” and their response was, “That would be an over-sell.” That still cracks me up!

    • lwidmer January 31, 2017 at 2:01 pm

      LOL That’s oversell? Wow, they really are honest!

      Industry trades are beginning to use that model, Paula. It’s an attempt for them to stay afloat financially. I work with one regularly that offers some content that includes just the advertisers’ quotes. As it’s not the entire magazine and the content is still general info, I’m okay with that.

      It’s when a publication tries to pass it off and unbiased that I would balk.

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