Navigating Ethics Between Journalism and Content Writing

I’m one of those lucky ones who has know exactly what she wanted to be: a writer.

At 5 years old, I interviewed anyone who would talk to me, wrote stories about the adventures of our family cat and dreamed up impossible tales that I scribbled on notebook paper and tied together with string. Though my mom jokes she’ll sell these on eBay one day when I’m a New York Times bestselling author, I still have to write the book to get there — and I’m rather busy juggling countless gigs to maintain a steady income.

Though I’m thankful for the career I carved for myself, the reality of full-time freelancing is vastly different than what I imagined as a kid. And that’s likely because the industry has transformed significantly in the past few decades. The days of one column paying your rent (looking at you, Carrie Bradshaw) or magazines paying upwards of $5 a word are about as #TBT as you can get. Today, writers are in the middle of a new normal, charged like many professionals to straddle the line between traditional reporting and content writing.

This is where a question of ethics becomes heightened: How do you maintain the number one quality all journalists commit to when they start their careers — integrity — while still making a living?

While some might argue it’s a puritanical way of looking at the now 24-hour news cycle and wide digital spectrum of branded content, for those who seek bylines in trusted publications and want to dip their toes into content marketing, it can be a difficult balancing act. Considering my rolodex includes travel and lifestyle journalism, SEO optimization, ghostwriting, sales copy and a plethora of other writing-related tasks, I’ve experienced the juggling firsthand.

If you’re considering adding more skill but want to maintain your principles and street cred, take the advice of fellow writers and experts:

Why writing opportunities are evolving

Freelance writer, content creator and senior social media copywriter Abernathy Miller-Rinehart says the freelance writing business has exploded over the last few years, creating more and more openings for talented — and flexible — wordsmiths. A few factors have contributed to this shift, including shrinking staffs at publications and websites, as well as what Miller-Rinehart calls the constant need for quality content, across all mediums and purposes. “Adding advertorial writing, corporate blogging and social copywriting to my skill set almost doubled my income. The projects rarely require a ton of time, and the pay is typically higher. Supplementing my editorial work with content writing has freed me to handpick the stories I want to tell,” she explains.

A glance at any writing-specific job board and you’ll likely get a glimpse into what Miller-Rinehart notes. From SEO writers and branded content specialists to early-morning, work-from-home news reporters who can follow a celebrity’s every move — the opportunities are plenty. While my outputs tends to be 60 percent journalism and 40 percent in the “other” category, freeelance writer Makasha Dorsey estimates only 15 percent of her time is spent on articles. She’d like to see that number increase, as the other assignments help keep her creative and critical juices flowing.

But, the ability to shift from CTA copywriting to interviewing a psychologist about a recent study, takes practice. And perhaps, a shift in how you perceive, market and present yourself to editors and managers.

Become a specialist — and a generalist.

While the concept of “beats” still exists — after all, there are food editors, travel reporters, lifestyle executives and the list goes on— for freelancers, agility and expertise are now equally as important. Dorsey says these days, moonlighters are expected to be specialists with the capacity of a generalist. “It’s no longer enough to be a great writer or consultant. Freelancers must have diverse skills to support the ever-changing demands of the 24-7, 365-day news cycle and a shrinking global worldview,” she explains. “In addition to writing, I must understand search optimized content, hashtags, influencer marketing, and website analytic — not to mention how my written words perform in ads or search.”

Though younger generations of journalists are learning how to become a one-stop-shop in college, those who are several years removed from academia experience a steeper learning curve. Regardless of experience and level though, making sure your content clients don’t ask you to compromise your standards, and your editors trust your capacity to remain unbiased, means setting a few rules for yourself and your work.

Put the reader first.

Much like you wouldn’t pitch a food story to an automobile publication, varying your tone and approach for content clients, Miller-Rinehart says the interest of the reader comes first, no matter the task. This is why classically trained journalists are a hot commodity: Quality content derives from talent and skill, which includes the ability to cater to a targeted audience. Part of your ethical responsibility is not to waste your reader’s time, so you must make any content worthy of their attention.

“If you can’t offer the reader helpful information or entertainment, you’re going to turn off potential clients/customers. Whether you’re writing a piece for an ad section of a magazine, a sponsored piece on a website… focus on the benefits of whatever you’re writing about, rather than the features. If you can present the real value a product, company or service can bring to the audience in a pleasing way, you’ll rarely have to deal with an ethical dilemma,” Miller-Rinehart explains.

Another way to avoid any disconnect? Act as you do in dating and your laptop selection — and be picky.

Never work with companies you disagree with.

Sure, you might not wholeheartedly agree with every little piece of content a magazine publishes, but when you’re working with a brand, it’s important to somewhat align with their principles and value proposition. If you can’t articulate why what they’re doing, offering or providing is great, then you’ll be subjecting yourself to dishonesty.

To avoid this, Miller-Rinehart encourages writers to do their homework. For her, that means reading their website, their client list, employee reviews and any other information she can get her hands on. This protects her from entering into uncomfortable situations, and also protects her most valuable asset: her name. “In freelance journalism, you’re only as good as your reputation. No company is perfect, but no amount of money is worth jeopardizing your integrity, especially if your passion depends on it. Before you go into business with anybody, make sure they align with what you believe to be ethical behavior,” she explains.

Avoid conflicts of interest — always.

Ever receive one of those sketchy emails where a company reaches out to “thank you” for including them in an article, but then offers up some cold-hard cash if you’ll mention then in another story? It’s a poor way to do business, but an all-too-common one, which requires writers to bite their proverbial tongue and move on when unethical offers arrive in their inbox. After all, you don’t want to create any eyebrow-raising line on your resume that could cost you, well, your career. “If I’ve worked with a magazine and one of their advertisers reaches out to me for content creation, I categorically decline. If anything about the business relationship could create a conflict of interest, I just don’t take the job,” Miller-Rinehart shares.

Remain transparent.

Since honesty is at the crux of the job description of a writer, it should come as a no-brainer that transparency is the best policy. This includes being upfront with an editor who asks you to feature a company you’ve created content for, or with a business who wants to be featured in a publication you write for and asks for placement. There are clear boundaries you can’t cross to remain authentic, and it’s recommended to express those.

The same goes for sponsored content on your personal blog or any time you’re mentioning a product or service you have a biased connection to. “If I’m writing a content that appears on a corporate website, it’s fair to assume the reader will know the piece is going to champion that company. If you do content writing for ad sections or sponsored content, make sure you denote when possible that you were paid to create the piece,” Miller-Rinehart says.

As kindergarten as it sounds, the easiest way to know if you’re ethically sound is trusting your gut. If a question raises in your head as you approach a topic or a brand — make sure your answer “why” before you move forward.

After all, a smart writer doesn’t always know the solutions, but they’re always curious enough to seek them.

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