Why ethics dilemmas are harder for freelancers

When do you make the call to kill an idea and move on? What if an editor makes a change that doesn’t reflect the facts?

Sometimes stories don’t work out on the ground. When do you make the call to kill the idea and move on? And what if, after you report an in-depth piece, an editor makes a change that doesn’t reflect the facts? The answer to these key ethical question is often different if you’re a freelance journalist. 

Freelancers make up an increasing portion of the media workforce. Unlike staff journalists, they don’t work in a newsroom with editors, colleagues, and legal staff close by. And because many outlets only pay fully on publication of a story, and are reluctant to work again with freelancers who are seen as demanding during the editing process, there is also a financial pressure to make a story work. 

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The Society of Professional Journalists runs a hotline for journalists with ethical dilemmas. The chair of the society’s ethics committee, Lynn Walsh, says freelancers who call in describe a lower level of support. “A lot of the calls and questions we get from freelancers are really people wanting to talk through their decision-making, and really they don’t have anyone else to do that with because they’re working from home.” 

Jenni Gritters, a freelance journalist based in Seattle, previously worked as a staff journalist and as an editor. As a staffer, she says, she’d likely bounce questions off her editor most of the time, but as a freelancer she needs to evaluate factors like her relationship with the editor and how much time she has before reaching out with ethical inquiries.

“There’s often this conversation that happens in my brain of: OK, is this the time when it’s worth it to ask questions?” she says. “How much is it worth it to push back? Because I do want them to give me assignments again, right?” 

Gritters says she knows first-hand that editors don’t have a lot of time for each piece. “The people that you’re going to hire for the next story, or the next assignment, are the people who are the easiest to work with, who really don’t make waves, who hand you clean copy on time,” she says. Gritters doesn’t think it’s a negative to ask questions, but “editors simply don’t have time”—and time is money for her, too, as she makes less on stories that take longer to produce. 

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Other freelance journalists brought up the same concern. Benjamin Moscovici, a German freelance journalist based in Guinea, compares his work process to that of a staff journalist: “A staffer, if he takes two months on a story, he gets two months salary and if I work two months on a story, I still just get paid for one story,” he says. Ann Deslandes, an Australian freelance journalist based in Mexico City, says that the financial pressure of freelancing compounds with the mental stress of weighing the best ethical option while reporting. While she doesn’t believe she’s caused harm, Deslandes says she sometimes worries retroactively whether she made the best ethical choice for her sources. She says this worry is multiplied because the responsibility for any ethical mistake often falls on the freelancer. “The burden is on us,” she says.

Different publications also approach ethical issues in different ways. It means that freelancers must also juggle different codes at once, for instance if they’re pitching two different angles to separate outlets on the same event. And only a few, like the Economist, provide ethical codes in written form. 

Omer Benjakob, a senior editor at Haaretz English, says he prefers when his freelance contributors reach out to him directly with their concerns. He doesn’t want a perfect process, he says. “If you get the story without issue, that doesn’t necessarily calm me — you do want to see the process, to see how the sausage is made, so to speak.” 

Birgit Røe Mathisen, an associate professor at Nord University, conducted research on the ethics of Norwegian freelance journalists as part of a larger project. She found that while some freelancers said they felt worn down by the process of repeatedly confronting ethical dilemmas alone, others saw their independence as an asset to behaving ethically, explaining that they could simply turn down requests and commissions from editors in a way that staffers might struggle with.

In a similar study, this time of US-based magazine journalists, Joy Jenkins, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tennessee, also found that inexperienced freelancers struggled more than veterans. Freelancers who are newer, she said, maybe a year or two out of college, “said, ‘it’s hard [to argue your point with editors], because we need those bylines and we need that visibility.’”

Jenkins says ethical obligations exist on both sides of the relationship. “We have a lot of conversations about what freelancers or writers need to do to get their piece publishable,” she says. “But we also have to flip that around and say, what are the things that editors need to think about?” 

She says an open line of communication is key. “We’re all time-strapped and trying to get the work done,” she says. “But for the people I talked to, having editors that hear them out, that are willing to meet their needs is really, really valuable.”

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Laura Neumann