A Question of Ethics

Feb 01, 2010

While staff positions at newspapers are coveted by many, there are reasons to love being a freelancer. You’re able to pursue the topics that interest you the most, work with all kinds of publications, and depending on your gig, you have a fairly flexible schedule. However, freelance work is not without its perils, especially when it comes to working for publications with strict rules about conflicts of interest. Earlier this month, Clark Hoyt, the Public Editor of the New York Times covered how the paper parted ways with three freelancers due to violations of their ethics guidelines. In two of the cases—those of writers Mary Tripsas and Mike Albo—it boiled down to the freelancers accepting free travel for research unrelated to their work at the paper at the time. Tripsas accepted travel expenses from 3M for research for her role as an associate professor at Harvard Business School. She later wrote an article about 3M’s innovation center that was published by the New York Times. Albo, on the other hand, accepted an all-expenses paid press junket to Jamaica "'explicitly to see how such an overhyped and oversponsored junket worked,' expecting that it would provide satiric material for a monologue or a piece of fiction." He never wrote about the trip for the paper, and believed he was "a free agent when it came to [his] other work." Whether their work is related to the New York Times or not, Hoyt explains "the paper’s rules apply even for work done for others." I know the importance of upholding the integrity of an organization, but as Virginia Postrel points out later in Hoyt’s column, freelancers are paid far less than staffers, don’t have benefits, and often must cover their own research costs. As a result, staying true to the Times’ ethical guidelines in every facet of their professional life may mean forgoing other work opportunities, and possibly a livelihood for many freelancers. Where are the ethics in that?